WASHINGTON – It was merely the first inning, yet fans kept rising out of their seats to applaud or yell or twirl their red towels, to chant “Let’s go, Nats!” and “M-V-P!” and various players’ names, enjoying every moment of a seven-run outburst that would, eventually, propel their city to its first World Series appearance in 86 years.
And then, a couple of hours and several innings later, as the Washington Nationals were protecting a shrinking lead, those same spectators, 43,976 strong, stood and shouted and reveled some more Tuesday night, giddily counting down the outs needed to finish off an NL Championship Series sweep of the St. Louis Cardinals.
From 19-31 during a mediocre May to the Fall Classic in an outstanding October.
Extending their stunning turnaround, the wild-card Nationals got RBIs from middle-of-the-order stars Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto in that breakout first inning, and Patrick Corbin’s 12-strikeout performance and a trio of relievers helped hold on to beat St. Louis 7-4 in Game 4 of a lopsided best-of-seven NLCS.
“Often, bumpy roads lead to beautiful places,” manager Dave Martinez said, “and this is a beautiful place.”
Now NLCS MVP Howie Kendrick and his teammates get plenty of time to rest and set up their rotation before beginning in a week against the Houston Astros or New York Yankees. Houston leads the best-of-seven AL Championship Series 2-1 after winning Game 3 at New York 4-1 Tuesday.
“You only learn how to win through mistakes and failures,” Kendrick said. “All those failures paid off today.”
The last time the World Series came to the nation’s capital was 1933, when the Washington Senators lost to the New York Giants in five games. The lone baseball championship for the city was in 1924, when the Senators defeated the Giants.
The Senators eventually left D.C., which didn’t have a team at all for more than three decades until the Montreal Expos — who were founded in 1969 and never made it to the World Series — moved to Washington in 2005. The Nationals had never managed to advance in the postseason since arriving, going 0-4 in the NLDS over the last seven years.
But this month alone they beat the Milwaukee Brewers in the NL wild-card game after trailing 3-1 heading to the eighth, and eliminated the Los Angeles Dodgers in a dramatic Game 5 in the NL Division Series after trailing 3-1 heading to the eighth again. Then came this lopsided dismissal of the Cardinals, who were outscored 20-6 in the series.
The Nationals became the fourth team to reach the World Series after being 12 games under .500.
Corbin, a left-handed pitcher signed with $140 million of the money that became available last offseason when Bryce Harper left town to join the Philadelphia Phillies, was not quite the equal of Washington’s other starters in the series.
Still, he did become the first pitcher to strike out 10 batters in the first four innings of a postseason game and earned the win after allowing four runs in five innings. Then Martinez — who so many folks thought might be fired back in May during his second season — turned to his NL-worst bullpen, such a problem for so much of this season.
After Tanner Rainey got three outs, and Sean Doolittle got five, Daniel Hudson came in for his fourth save in four chances this postseason. It wasn’t easy, though: After replacing Doolittle with two outs in the eighth, Hudson hit his first batter and walked his second, bringing pinch-hitter Matt Carpenter to the plate as the go-ahead run with the bases loaded.
Carpenter, a career .481 batter with the bases full, grounded out to second baseman Brian Dozier, a defensive replacement who briefly lost the ball before gathering it and throwing to first to end that inning.
Hudson finished things with a 1-2-3 ninth, getting Tommy Edman on a fly ball to center field to end it. Players ran out of the dugout to meet in the center of the diamond while red fireworks went off around the stadium.
Dating to the final week of the regular season, the surging Nationals have won 16 of their past 18 games.
Corbin got this evening started with a 1-2-3 top of the first, striking out all three Cardinals with a high, 95 mph fastball, a real contrast to the off-speed stuff Stephen Strasburg used for his own dozen Ks a night earlier.
In the bottom half, Washington put up those seven runs, all charged to rookie Dakota Hudson, who lasted all of 15 pitches — doing to the Cardinals what they did in the previous round, when they scored 10 to open Game 5 of the NLDS against Atlanta.
All the heartache of playoffs past seemed to dissipate during an evening that only briefly was tense for the home team and its supporters: In the fifth, a juggled Cardinals lineup finally awoke, scoring three runs — one more than the team managed to produce in Games 1-3 combined — to get within 7-4.
With a man on second and the tying run in the on-deck circle, Corbin came through, striking out St. Louis’ 3-4 hitters, Paul Goldschmidt and Marcell Ozuna, with sliders.
Astros 4, Yankees 1
In New York, a gritty Gerrit Cole held the Yankees scoreless without his sharpest stuff, Jose Altuve sparked Houston at the plate and the Astros locked down a victory Tuesday to take a 2-1 lead in the AL Championship Series.
Altuve and Josh Reddick homered early off Luis Severino, who labored into the fifth while keeping the Yankees close. But they never broke through against Cole, who grinded through seven innings to win his 19th straight decision despite walking five batters for the second time in his career.
“Just boiled down to making some good pitches under pressure,” he said.
Cole escaped a bases-loaded jam in the first and stranded nine runners through five, improving to 3-0 with a 0.40 ERA in three playoff outings this year. Poised to become a prized free agent who could command more than $200 million, he’s putting together a dominant run that’s beginning to rival some of baseball’s greatest postseason pitching performances.
The 29-year-old right-hander, unbeaten in 25 starts since late May, allowed four hits and struck out seven. That ended a streak of 11 consecutive games with double-digit strikeouts — the previous big league record was eight. Cole led the majors with 326 Ks this season.
“I think he’s the best pitcher in baseball right now,” Astros manager AJ Hinch said. “Gerrit is locked in. And to see him do it on the big stage in a playoff game with the magnitude of this game, it was pretty awesome.”
Game 4 in the best-of-seven playoff is scheduled for Wednesday night — but that could change. The gloomy weather forecast calls for a substantial rainstorm, potentially forcing a postponement that would likely alter pitching plans for both teams.
Gleyber Torres homered in the eighth off Houston reliever Joe Smith, one batter after replay umpires reversed a call and ruled Edwin Encarnación out at first base. That led to a little trash and a ball being thrown onto the field before public address announcer Paul Olden reminded fans not to toss any objects out of the stands.
Roberto Osuna got three quick outs in the ninth for a save.
“Two more to go,” Osuna said. “I’m excited.”
The bushy-haired Cole grew up in California rooting for the Yankees and was drafted by them 28th overall in 2008. He didn’t sign, choosing instead to attend UCLA before the Pittsburgh Pirates selected him with the top pick in 2011.
Making his second career start at Yankee Stadium, he got away with several pitches in key situations. Other times, Cole flashed the filthy breaking balls and 98-100 mph heat that have made him so unhittable in October — and unbeatable since May.
His winning streak is the longest by a pitcher in one year since Rube Marquard began 19-0 for the 1912 New York Giants.
“He’s exceptional. And he gets better and better and better,” Hinch said. “Once he found his curveball, it was pretty lights out. I think he finished his outing as strong as ever.”
After rolling to a 7-0 victory in the series opener, the Yankees — the highest-scoring team in the majors this season — have totaled three runs on two homers in the last 20 innings.
“It’s obviously a little frustrating we weren’t able to break through with him,” manager Aaron Boone said. “But I think up and down we gave ourselves a chance. And anytime you’re facing a guy like that, you want that kind of traffic. And we had that in several innings. He made big pitches when he had to.”
With two on in the fifth and the Astros clinging to a 2-0 lead, Didi Gregorius lofted a high fly that Reddick caught at the right field fence.
“The emotions kind of followed the flyball, right?” Cole explained. “So it was kind of like low, to freaking out, to not so worried anymore.”
The three-time All-Star finally found his rhythm after that, retiring his last seven batters with three strikeouts.
He called his early fastball command “spotty,” but his ability to pitch out of trouble prevented a lively sellout crowd of 48,998 from really ever letting loose.
“I mean, we just had to work it,” Cole said.
Gregorius also grounded out with the bases loaded to end the first.
“Most of the game was on me,” he said. “I didn’t come through, so I was the one that failed, not the whole team.”
Houston got a rally going in the seventh against scuffling reliever Adam Ottavino. George Springer walked and went to third when Altuve executed a perfect run-and-hit single through the right side.
After savvy baserunning by Springer to stay in a rundown long enough to get runners to second and third, Altuve scored on Zack Britton’s wild pitch. Yuli Gurriel made it 4-0 with a sacrifice fly.
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5