WASHINGTON – It ended as these games end, with a pile of humanity in the middle of a diamond, and that's the image these Washington Nationals will hang on walls throughout the city. But at the bottom of that pile Tuesday night at the center of Nationals Park, so many memories were squashed. Repress them, Washington, because there are new versions now. Where grief was once expected, now there's nothing but possibility.
These Nationals changed that for themselves and for their city. They beat the St. Louis Cardinals 7-4 in Game 4 of the National League Championship Series, completing a dominant sweep at a delirious ballpark whose denizens preferred not to, or simply couldn't, sit down. In a town with a baseball history that can best be described as complicated, the significance of that victory is multilayered.
What matters, though, is just one thing: The Washington Nationals are going to the World Series.
Tuesday night began with an eruption and ended with fingernails hanging onto the edge of a cliff. Cardinals starting pitcher Dakota Hudson recorded only one out and allowed five scorching hits before he was mercifully removed. When the first inning closed, the Nationals held a 7-0 lead, and the home crowd of 43,976 bounced with jubilation.
In those moments, the pennant seemed clinched. Washington had never trailed in the series. Starting pitcher Patrick Corbin struck out seven of the first nine Cardinals he faced. This was a walkover, and the crowd sensed it.
Here's the problem: Washington's baseball past is littered with calamities, and the Cardinals are one of the sport's proudest franchises. Sweeps aren't easy. Pennants aren't granted. By the fifth, St. Louis was within 7-4, and anticipation had turned to anxiety. There would be joy. But torment had to precede it.
That this club altered that trajectory borders on preposterous. On May 23, the New York Mets finished off a four-game sweep of the Nationals, who at 19-31 were on pace to lose 100 games. Only one team in the National League owned a worse record. The World Series? Please. A winning record seemed unlikely.
"Obviously, I wasn't too happy," said Mark Lerner, the club's managing principal owner. "Nobody was. I couldn't imagine what happened the rest of the season. I would have never believed where we are today. A turnaround like that only happens once in a blue moon, so I can't say I totally expected it. I didn't."
Who did? Maybe the people inside the clubhouse, who understand that 50 games gone in a season means there are 112 left. Manager Dave Martinez remained outwardly buoyant. His approach, stated perhaps 112 more times, was to enter each day with a single goal: go 1-0 today.
"Often, bumpy roads lead to beautiful places," Martinez said, "and this is a beautiful place."