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After Decade Of Heartbreak, Nationals Chase Away Postseason Demons

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(Sean Haffey/Getty Images)

LOS ANGELES — Mike Rizzo stood just inside the entrance to the visitor’s clubhouse at Dodger Stadium, an open bottle of Campo Viejo in each hand and the foam from two just-dispensed Budweisers slithering down the sides of his smooth, bald head.

The Nationals general manager oversaw the construction of some of the most talented teams this decade and suffered through their repeated postseason failures. Too often he stood on the other side of such celebrations, talking in hushed tones about disappointing finishes while opposing clubhouses thumped with music and alcohol flowed freely.

For the first time since Rizzo assumed the role of Nationals general manager in March 2009—before Stephen Strasburg was drafted, before Bryce Harper was drafted, before the Nationals became a perennial power synonymous with playoff disappointment—he got to experience the sweet, cheap champagne-tinted taste of playoff victory.

"There’s nothing any more emotional than just getting past the division series,” Rizzo said. "We’ve been aiming for this since 2012. We haven’t reached our goals yet, but we’re going to keep fighting and battling until we get there.”

With three momentous swings on Wednesday night, the indefatigable 2019 edition of the Nationals erased the sting of a decade’s-worth of postseason heartbreak and accomplished something none of their uber-talented predecessors did before.

They won a postseason series.

Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto, homegrown stars bookending a decade of fruitful player development, homered on back-to-back pitches off Clayton Kershaw to turn a 3-1 deficit into a 3-3 tie in the eighth inning. Howie Kendrick struck the finishing blow with a grand slam in the 10th, and the Nationals walked away with an 7-3 win over the Dodgers in Game 5 of the National League Division Series.

It is the franchise’s first postseason series victory since it moved to Washington in 2004. It is the second postseason series win in the franchise’s 51-year history dating back to its time as the Montreal Expos.

"I feel like we got that monkey off our back,” righthander Max Scherzer said. "When we got the Wild Card game, just the way we came back and showed the resiliency, and just the way we continue to fight, it took every last guy to get this win. We fought all the way to the 10th inning of Game 5. What a moment.”

It was a fitting capper to a decade that began with so much promise for the Nationals franchise but instead resulted in years of frustration.

The Nationals drafted Strasburg No. 1 overall in 2009 and Harper first overall in 2010, landing two of the greatest talents in amateur baseball history, and followed up by drafting Anthony Rendon sixth overall in 2011. They opened the decade with budding All-Stars Ryan Zimmerman, Ian Desmond, Wilson Ramos and Jordan Zimmermann all in the majors at 25 years old or younger, with Derek Norris, Marco Estrada, Brad Peacock and Robbie Ray coming up the farm system behind them. They had a new ballpark, the growing energy of their new city behind them and an owner willing to spend the money necessary to put the team over the top.

The Nationals did nearly everything right. And yet, as the end of 2010s neared, the decade stood more for pain and heartache in the franchise’s collective memory than the realization of that promise.

The fifth game of the NLDS, in particular, proved too great a barrier to overcome again and again.

In 2012, the Nationals led the Cardinals, 7-5, with two outs in the top of the ninth inning in Game 5 of the NLDS and surrendered four runs to lose the game—and the series—in stunning fashion.

In 2016, they led the Dodgers, 1-0, in the seventh inning with Max Scherzer on the mound at home, but a clinic in bullpen mismanagement wiped away the lead and resulted in another Game 5 loss.

In 2017, they led the Cubs, 4-3, entering the fifth inning at home, but a defensive meltdown led to four Chicago runs and another Game 5 loss at home.

Three NLDS Game 5s, three losses. Combined with the 2014 NLDS, when they lost three one-run games, the Nationals went 0-for-4 in postseason series’ despite the mountains of talent amassed under Rizzo’s watch.

For more than three hours on a cool evening at Chavez Ravine, it appeared that disappointment would continue in 2019.

Max Muncy hit a two-run homer in the first inning and Kikè Hernandez led off the second with another homer as the Dodgers jumped on Strasburg to get out to 3-0 lead. Soto drove in Rendon with an RBI single in the sixth to bring the Nats closer, but they still found themselves trailing by two runs in the eighth inning and down to their final six outs, another Game 5 loss staring them in the face in what would have been a morbidly fitting finish to the decade for the franchise.

Instead, Rendon and Soto tied it with back-to-back swings after Dodgers manager Dave Roberts curiously left Kershaw in with his entire bullpen available. The Nationals, victims of bullpen mismanagement in so many of their own postseason failures, finally got to take advantage of someone else’s follies.

When Roberts sent Joe Kelly out for a second inning of work in the 10th, and left him in even after he issued a leadoff walk to Adam Eaton, the Nationals pounced. A double by Rendon and an intentional walk to Soto loaded the bases, and Kendrick sent a 410-foot drive over the center-field wall to give the Nationals their first lead of the night.

Stunned and shell-shocked, the Dodgers went down in order against Sean Doolittle in the bottom of the inning, sending the Nationals to the NLCS.

"We fought them tooth and nail,” Rizzo said. "It’s our turn this year.”

That the Nationals chased their postseason demons away in the final year of the decade is significant.

It came in the year Harper departed in free agency. It came in Rendon’s final year before he hits free agency, and possibly Strasburg’s too if he exercises his opt-out clause after the season. Doolittle, Eaton and franchise icon Zimmerman can also be free agents after the season, pending the Nationals’ decisions on their team options.

While the Nationals have a talented young core led by Soto, Trea Turner, Victor Robles and rising top prospect Carter Kieboom, this in many ways may be the last ride for many of the players who have come to define the franchise.

"Keep fighting,” Rendon said. "I think that's the story of maybe this organization. We have always either done really, really well and then came up short or we had been plagued with injuries and had to continue to fight out of a hole.

"We just wanted to keep believing in ourselves and not worry about what people outside of our locker room were saying.”

The ride will continue a little bit longer. The Nationals will face the Cardinals in the National League Championship Series beginning Friday in St. Louis.

They have already made it further than any of their predecessors. Now that they have the taste of one series win—and the cheap champagne that goes with it—they are hankering for more.

"Every time you get to do this it’s a blessing,” Rizzo said. "You never take it for granted because you never know when it will happen again. We were never satisfied with winning the Wild Card or the NLDS. We have plans like we do each and every year to try and get to the World Series.

"We still have a fighter’s chance right now. We feel good about ourselves.”

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PODCAST: The Starpower Shines Bright In ALCS, NLCS

It feels like we aren't far off from a Nationals coronation, plus a look at today's Yankees/Astros Game 3.

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