HOUSTON — What a comeback for the Washington Nationals.
The team that was 12 games under .500 before the end of May is now the World Series champion.
The Nationals beat the Astros 6-2 Wednesday night, when they were down 2-0 after six innings. It was Washington’s fifth comeback win in a potential elimination game this postseason — four was already a major-league record for a single postseason.
They had to win the NL wild-card game, then went the full five games in the NL Division Series before beating the Dodgers on the road in extra innings to advance. They swept the Cardinals in the NL Championship Series.
So almost out of contention in May, now champs in October.
Howie Kendrick, Anthony Rendon and the Nationals completed their amazing comeback journey — fittingly with one last late rally on the road.
In Game 7 of the World Series, no less.
Kendrick and Rendon homered in the seventh as the Nationals overcame a two-run deficit to win the first title in franchise history.
With all eyes on starting pitcher Max Scherzer and his remarkable recovery after a painkilling cortisone injection, these Nationals truly embraced their shot in the first Series when the road team won every game.
Even more against the odds: Juan Soto and Washington rallied from behind to win five elimination games this postseason, an unprecedented feat.
“What a story,” said first baseman Ryan Zimmerman, the Nationals’ first draft pick back in 2005.
“I hope D.C.’s ready for us to come home!”
Series MVP Stephen Strasburg, new lefty Patrick Corbin and the Nats brought the first World Series championship to the nation’s capital since Walter “Big Train” Johnson delivered the crown for the Senators in 1924.
Strasburg is the first No. 1 overall pick to win World Series MVP and just the third top-two pick to win the award, according to Elias Sports Bureau, and the third pitcher in MLB history to win five games in a single postseason and the first to do it without a loss.
This franchise started out as the Montreal Expos in 1969 when the major leagues expanded beyond the border, putting a team with tricolor caps at jaunty Jarry Park. They moved to D.C. in 2005, ending Washington’s three-decade-plus wait for big-league baseball after the Senators left town to become the Texas Rangers.
But the incredible path these wild-card Nationals with the curly W logo took, well, no one could have imagined.
“Resilient, relentless bunch of guys,” manager Dave Martinez said. “They fought all year long.”
Having lost star slugger Bryce Harper to free agency and beset by bullpen woes, Washington plummeted to 19-31 in late May. It got so bad there was talk around town that the Nationals might fire Martinez and trade away Scherzer.
Instead, they stuck with the mantra that sprung up on T-shirts — Stay In The Fight.
“That was our motto,” Scherzer said.
And months later, they finished it, indeed. They are the second team in MLB history to win the World Series after being at least 12 games below .500 during the regular season (1914 Braves), according to ESPN Stats & Info.
“Guess what? We stayed in the fight. We won the fight!” Martinez shouted during the trophy celebration on the field.
“We were down and out. We were 19-31. We didn’t quit then, we weren’t going to quit now."
For the 43,326 revved-up fans at Minute Maid Park, it was a combination of shock and disappointment. So close to seeing the Astros win their second crown in three years, they watched their chance suddenly vanish as the team with the majors’ best regular-season record (107-55) fell apart.
Washington kept pulling away after taking the lead, with Adam Eaton’s two-run single in the ninth accounting for the final margin.
Zack Greinke was in complete control until Rendon — a Houston high school and college star — hit a home run that cut the Astros’ lead to 2-1.
When Soto followed with a one-out walk, manager A.J. Hinch decided to make a move. He’d had ace starter Gerrit Cole warming up in the bullpen earlier, but this call was for Will Harris.
Kendrick connected on the second pitch, slicing a drive that hit the screen attached to the rightfield foul pole. Just like that, everything had changed for the team in orange as the ballpark fell silent.
For Kendrick, another timely blow. At 36, playing on the oldest team in the majors, the journeyman earned the MVP award for the NLCS against St. Louis after hitting the winning grand slam in the 10th inning of the deciding Game 5 of the Division Series at Dodger Stadium.
Then again, this was nothing new for the Nationals.
Washington rallied in the eighth to beat Milwaukee in the wild-card game and took the last two to beat Los Angeles in the NLDS, setting up a sweep of the Cardinals in the NLCS.
Far away, a big crowd poured into Nationals Park for a watch party. That was the stadium where Houston hammered the Nats for three games last weekend, but their luck changed in Texas.
This World Series had lacked a lot of drama, aside from a volatile call of interference in Washington’s Game 6 win that stoked heated debate across the sports world. Who knew rule 5.09(a)(11) could stir such passion?
With Greinke and Scherzer grunting on every pitch, Game 7 was a classic duel from the start.
Yuli Gurriel put the Astros ahead with a home run in the second, and Carlos Correa added an RBI single off Scherzer that made it 2-0 in the fifth.
Scherzer was done after the fifth, but he had done his job to keep it close. Only a few days earlier, the three-time Cy Young Award winner had been unable to lift his right arm because of nerve irritation near his neck.
Daniel Hudson closed it out for the Nationals, who made Houston pay for stranding so many runners on base all game. Hudson struck out Michael Brantley for the last out, then threw his glove to start the celebration.
Washington was 10-0 in games started by Scherzer and Strasburg during the playoffs, the best team record in games started by any duo in a single postseason in major-league history, according to ESPN Stats & Info.
Rendon homered in the last three games when the Nationals were facing elimination, becoming the first player ever to homer in three consecutive elimination games.
Kendrick is the first player with multiple go-ahead homers in the seventh inning or later of winner-take-all games in a single postseason. His grand slam in the 10th won Game 5 of the NLDS against the Dodgers.
Kendrick is also just the sixth player in World Series history to hit a go-ahead home run in the seventh or later of Game 7. At 36 years and 110 days old, he is the fourth-oldest player to homer in a Game 7 of the Series.
PLAY LOUD AND RESPECTFUL
Hinch is all for letting the young kids play — and play loud. He also wants them to respect the game.
Alex Bregman, the Astros third baseman who is one of the young stars MLB has highlighted in its ad campaigns trying to reach younger fans, carried his bat past first base after hitting a home run in the first inning of Tuesday’s Game 6.
“I think we should always encourage players to show personality and be as open with the fans and drive the sport,” Hinch said before Game 7. “So many good stories in these clubhouses, so many good people and players to celebrate, to a point, then it crosses a line where it was probably unnecessary to go that far.”
When Soto homered later in Game 6, the Nationals leftfielder who turned 21 during this Fall Classic mimicked Bregman with a similar action.
“When it gets to the competition on the field, I fear a little bit of it goes too far,” Hinch said. “And I’m actually okay with Soto thinking that it was funny. I think that’s part of these personalities that you have to individualize within our sport if you want to celebrate the youthfulness that comes with it.”
Zimmerman has been in the majors for 15 seasons, all as the only player to be part of the Nationals for each season they have played. He believes the most important thing is that baseball is in good hands with the young talent.
“Things like that 10 years ago would have never happened. And I’m not here to say it’s good or bad,” Zimmerman said. “The game has definitely gotten younger. I personally don’t think there’s a place in the game for that stuff. But I’m not the person that makes all the rules. There’s different thoughts nowadays.”
Bregman spoke to Hinch three times Tuesday night about the move, and the 25-year-old third baseman apologized publicly after the game, saying he let his emotions get the best of him.
Hinch said he would never want to see baseball try to eliminate any of the celebrations or bat flips. He said the exuberant celebrations like the handshakes, hugs and dancing in the dugout are fun for the younger fans that baseball is trying to attract.
“I want our fans to know our players and the personalities that come with it within the realm of sportsmanship,” Hinch said.
When Martinez was having an animated conversation with umpires that led to his ejection during Tuesday’s Game 6, the Nationals manager heard a fan screaming at him from above the dugout.
“Davey, your heart. Remember your heart,” the manager recalled with a laugh before Game 7.
The 55-year-old Martinez had a heart procedure in mid September after feeling tightness in his chest during a game.
Martinez, a former coach under Joe Maddon with the Rays, said one of his doctors checked on him in the training room after he got ejected and asked him if he was okayK.
“I just asked him, ‘Do I look okay?’ Yeah,” Martinez said. “So yeah, they were all worried.”
The Nationals and Astros have reached the end of a long season that began at the spring training complex they share in West Palm Beach.
Game 7 was the 210th game this year for the Astros, including 30 exhibition games during the spring, the 162-game regular season and 18 postseason games.
Washington played 208, with 29 in the spring and 17 this postseason, including the NL wild-card game and a four-game sweep in the NL Championship Series.