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The Comeback Kid Nationals Never Quit—and Now They’re World Series Champions

After a decade of playoff disappointments, Washington upset the Houston Astros in Game 7 thanks to the same clutch breakthroughs that defined their improbable run

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The most surprising part of the Nationals’ latest, and final, and most monumental comeback of the 2019 postseason is that it came in the seventh inning rather than the eighth. That was, after all, the club’s modus operandi throughout October: The Nats overcame a two-run deficit in the eighth inning of the wild-card game against the Brewers, then a two-run deficit in the eighth inning of Game 5 of the NLDS against the Dodgers. But on Wednesday, in a thrilling climax to the 2019 season, they struck an inning earlier than normal in overcoming a two-run deficit in Game 7 of the World Series against the Astros.

The fateful inning in Houston saw the team’s fortunes flip in just six minutes. Entering the seventh, the club’s championship chances looked about as bleak as they had—at several points—all month. Astros starter Zack Greinke entered the inning with a 2-0 lead, in complete command, after allowing just one hit in the first six frames. But Anthony Rendon lasered a home run to left, and after a walk and pitching change, Howie Kendrick directed an opposite-field flare into the foul pole. The ball thrummed off the unforgiving metal; Washington danced and cheered, en route to a World Series celebration.

The Nationals won 6-2 in Game 7 in Houston to clinch the first championship in franchise history—and complete the final comeback in a season full of them. They started the season 19-31 and sat in 14th place in the National League on the morning of May 24. They trailed in their first playoff round and their second, and then in games 6 and 7 of the World Series. Yet after a month of deficits, and tension, and a whole history of playoff misery, the Nationals secured the final outs with room to spare, as Daniel Hudson struck out Michael Brantley and the customary infield pile commenced.

That the Nationals were even in position to pounce in the late innings of Game 7 at all is a surprise—and not only because of all the necessary bounces to place them in Minute Maid Park on Wednesday in the first place. Even within Game 7 itself, the Astros could have rolled to victory, much as they had in the finale of their 2017 World Series triumph against the Dodgers.

Starting for the Nationals was Max Scherzer, just three days removed from missing a start because he woke up with so much neck and back pain that he couldn’t dress himself. Scherzer gutted through five innings and 103 pitches in Game 7, but he clearly had not brought his best stuff to Houston. He generated few swinging strikes and walked more batters than he whiffed, while pitching with constant stress due to crowded bases. Yet even as Houston scored two runs on a solo Yuli Gurriel homer and a Carlos Correa RBI single, the Astros couldn’t land the knockout blow: In the second, third, fourth, and fifth innings, they stranded two runners each. It wasn’t for a lack of hard contact, but Houston’s would-be hits kept landing in leather.

Still, even those two runs looked sufficient for the bulk of the game because opposite Scherzer, Greinke was turning in the performance of a career. Based on his own playoff history, short and long term, Greinke wouldn’t have been the choice to generate a Game 7 gem. In two previous sudden-death starts, he had lost to the Mets in the 2015 NLDS and been chased in the fourth inning of the 2017 wild-card game against the Rockies. His career playoff ERA before Wednesday was 4.31, which ranked 48th out of 52 pitchers who had thrown at least 75 playoff innings. The much-derided Clayton Kershaw, for reference, was 49th.

And if anything, Greinke’s first postseason as an Astro, after he was the club’s celebrated acquisition at July’s trade deadline, had gone even worse. He lost his first two starts in a barrage of home runs, and in his next two, even as Houston won both contests, Greinke failed to complete five innings. When he faced the Nationals in Game 3, he allowed 10 base runners in 4 2/3 innings, surviving only because of Washington’s failures with runners in scoring position.

On Wednesday, he didn’t allow Washington much of a chance at RISP redemption. The former Cy Young winner needed just 67 pitches to traverse six scoreless innings, allowing only one National past first base, and the five-time Gold Glove winner flashed tremendous defensive skill to field a variety of bunts and grounders up the middle. Through two-thirds of Wednesday’s game, he cruised—and with a low pitch count plus ostensibly reliable relievers behind him, Greinke looked ready to claim the mantle of Game 7 star.

But the game spiraled away from Houston in a hurry. Rendon struck with a 374-foot laser off a Greinke changeup. It was the Washington third baseman’s sixth consecutive extra-base hit in the late innings of an elimination game this month. Then Juan Soto, another Nationals playoff hero, drew a walk with the benefit of a questionable ball call on a 2-1 pitch in the strike zone. And then Astros reliever Will Harris entered, replacing Greinke and his mere 80 pitches, and then Howie Kendrick, yet another Nationals playoff hero, delivered his most important blow yet.

Kendrick wasn’t even supposed to start for the Nationals this season; he was a utility veteran with a worthwhile bench bat, and he started only one of the team’s first 12 games. But he earned a spot in the everyday lineup by producing career-best numbers at the plate, all on the path toward playoff glory. Earlier this month, he crushed the series-winning grand slam in extra innings in Los Angeles. He won NLCS MVP honors in Washington’s sweep of St. Louis. And on Wednesday, while his home run wasn’t the most convincing blast off the bat, it drifted back and to the corner, back and to the corner, before a loud crash supplied all the convincing necessary.

The Kendrick home run boosted the Nationals’ championship probability by 34.8 percentage points—tied for the ninth highest of any play in postseason history. And after Kendrick flipped the lead, more runs tumbled from Washington’s bats in a hurry. The Nats scored on a Soto single in the eighth, then added two more runs on an Adam Eaton hit in the ninth.

In relief of Scherzer, meanwhile, free-agent signee Patrick Corbin tossed three scoreless innings to prevent the Nationals’ weak bullpen from surrendering a lead of its own. July trade addition Hudson threw a 1-2-3 ninth, and the Nationals won—the Nationals won!—the World Series.

They won, as they had all month, with timely hitting from a core of stars—yes, after this month, Howie Kendrick is now an offensive star—and concentrated innings from a trio of pitchers. Each member of the Nationals’ middle-of-the-order trio drove in a run Wednesday; each member of the trio of aces threw crucial innings in the series comeback, with World Series MVP Stephen Strasburg dazzling in Game 6 and Scherzer and Corbin combining for eight innings and only two runs allowed in Game 7. And after a decade of playoff disappointments, with Washington on the losing end of comeback after comeback, the Nationals finished the most magical month in franchise history with yet another comeback of their own.