LOS ANGELES — A few miles from the Washington Nationals’ spring training home in West Palm Beach, two camels named Blondie and Mr. Brown finally slept the sleep of winners in their stalls Wednesday night.
The Nationals had made it over the hump.
After four tries, they had finally won a National League Division Series – and did so in 2019 Nationals style, coming back from a 3-1 deficit to defeat the favored Los Angeles Dodgers 7-3 in extra innings in Game 5 before a stunned crowd at Dodger Stadium.
Howie Kendrick did the stunning with a 10th inning grand slam off reliever Joe Kelly, the culmination of a hard-fought comeback during the game that was symbolic of their comeback season.
And it was manager Dave Martinez, who was passed over numerous times for managing jobs, who got this team over the hump. Not Davey Johnson the genius, not Matt Williams the general, not Dusty Baker the cool one.
He had the camels — symbols of the postseason hump the Nationals could not get over — brought to spring training in 2018, his first year with the Nationals, as a lighthearted way of letting the team know he understood the pressure they were under.
Turns out it took a 19-31 start to really get these Nationals relaxed.
This team had a historic finish, a 93-69 final record to reach the wild card — only the ninth team in the history of the game to start out 12 games under .500 and reach the playoffs.
The rebound continued with a a dramatic eighth-inning comeback in the wild card game against the Milwaukee Brewers, thanks to a bases-clearing double by Juan Soto for the 4-3 win.
And in Game 5 Wednesday night, after Stephen Strasburg was blasted early with two home runs, giving Los Angeles a 3-0 lead after just two innings, the Nationals came back again — an RBI single by Soto in the sixth inning, followed by back-to-back home runs by Anthony Rendon and Soto in the eighth inning off Clayton Kershaw in relief to tie the game at 3-3.
Washington now heads to St. Louis for Game 1 Friday night to face the Cardinals, who knocked the Atlanta Braves out in their Game 5 contest Wednesday by the score of 13-1.
The Nationals’ postseason woes began against the Cardinals in the 2012 division series.
This time, though, it is the League Championship Series — the first for the Nationals.
The postseason pain of the Nationals had become the stuff of legends — the six-run blown lead in Game 5 in 2012, when the Nationals playoff history was just beginning; the three-run lead given up to the Dodgers in Game 5 of the 2016 division series.
Then there was the madness of 2017, when the best pitcher on the planet, Max Scherzer, fell victim to three straight two-out hits, a disputed passed ball, catcher’s interference and a hit batter in the Game 5 division series loss to the Chicago Cubs.
All failures seemed possible after that.
But this 2019 team has a personality the others did not — one built for adversity. Those previous four Nationals postseason teams coasted to division titles. This team, as Martinez has said so often, has essentially played a wild card game every day since that 19-31 start.
“We have been through this since May 24th,” he told reporters before the game.
“We have been playing playoff games since May 24th. I mean, that’s the way we look at it. So I did tell them, I said, ‘Look, I packed a lot of clothes in my suitcase, so I don’t want to pack for nothing, so let’s keep it going.’”
Wednesday night they showed that this team is not defined by painful past failures.
But nobody should forget them. It makes victory that much sweeter.
“We’ve got to remember how it feels,” general manager Mike Rizzo said after the Game 5 collapse of 2012. “We have to have a burning desire never for it to happen again.”
It took a long time — but it finally didn’t happen again. The camels can rest easy.
⦁ Hear Thom Loverro on 106.7 The Fan Wednesday afternoons and Saturday mornings and on the Kevin Sheehan Show podcast.
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