Howie Kendrick, Nationals are on the edge of something great

Tim BrownMLB columnist

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The deeper, more textured introspection is sure to come, along with whatever comes next for the Washington Nationals, whether they finish the St. Louis Cardinals or not, if they indeed are headed to the World Series as it would appear, whether there is a greater party than that waiting.

They’d just completed another 3 ½ hours of the sort of baseball that for a very long time seemed so unlikely. For this team, it had been months. For the franchise, years. But, now, in the way they play the game, the way they look at each other and grin, and then the way they settle into themselves when considering what has passed and what may come, well, they always said they believed. Maybe now, a win away, they believe that they believe.

After they beat the Cardinals, 8-1, on a warm Monday night at Nationals Park, took a three-games-to-none lead into Tuesday night’s Game 4 and brought baseball back to life for the forty-some-thousand folks who filled this park, many of them did seem to consider their journeys to today. To the edge of something great. So, how old they are and how long they’ve done this and how the World Series — even the close proximity of a World Series — was almost always for somebody else. How this sort of weariness sits in their bones and feels like satisfaction. Like pride.

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Howie Kendrick arrived at the big leagues in Anaheim, four years after the Angels had played in their only World Series. He left for Los Angeles, stayed with the Dodgers for a couple seasons, and then moved on, traded to Philadelphia, at which point the Dodgers went to consecutive World Series. He signed with the Nationals, who, as a franchise (or two) had never been to a World Series, and since relocating to D.C. had not won so much as a playoff series.

A fine hitter, a one-time All-Star, and generally known as a guy often predicted to win batting titles (he hasn’t, yet), Kendrick was too young or too old or in the right place at the wrong time or the wrong place at the right time. And five months ago the Nationals were 19-31, five-and-a-half months before Kendrick would become a free agent, at 36, seeking a 15th big-league season.

Washington Nationals veteran Howie Kendrick hit three doubles in Game 3 of the NLCS. (Getty Images)
Washington Nationals veteran Howie Kendrick hit three doubles in Game 3 of the NLCS. (Getty Images)

“He’s the greatest ever,” Rendon said. “I mean, you see the man. He’s, what, 36 years old, and he’s still doing it. He’s built like a frickin’ cinder block. He’s huge. And, man, he stays short. He’s strong. So if he puts that barrel to it and stays behind the ball, you see it. He does damage. So he knows how to hit. That’s what he does.”

The Nationals win another game over the next five days and Kendrick, along with the rest of them, will have finally found his way to the final baseball games of a baseball season. This, thanks to the most important baseball game ever played in this town, which will be true until about 8 o’clock Tuesday night, and Kendrick’s three doubles, and Stephen Strasburg’s 12 strikeouts, and Anibal Sanchez’s and Max Scherzer’s rigid starts before that, and Anthony Rendon’s four hits across three games (and 11 across eight games).

Kendrick was asked late Monday night if he recalled the last time he’d hit three doubles in a game.

“Was I in Little League or something?” he asked.

Nope. It was 2008.

Eleven years later, the doubles, the runs they drove in, the runs he scored, the pitcher they supported, have him here. With these guys. In this city. With one more game to win. Then four more after that.

“I guess,” he said, “some of the best things come from the unexpected moments.

“I enjoy it all, because without all the mistakes and all the hardships and all the successes earlier in my career, none of this would be available. None of this would be possible without all that. I talk with Max quite a bit. And we’re like, ‘Man, don’t you wish you could go back and be how you are now then?’ And he goes, ‘No. I wouldn’t change it because all those failures are helping you with success now.’”

That season that held his last three-double game, he batted .306. He hit three home runs over 92 games. Those Angels lost to the Boston Red Sox in the division series, a series in which he was two for 17, and maybe felt like he’d never get another hit. Nearly 1,500 hits later, he’s a bit thicker through the torso, a bit more serious in his jawline, less lively in his eyes. But, he’s shorter in his stroke, smarter in his approach, and he was a .344 hitter in 2019, and he eliminated the Dodgers with a grand slam, and he has helped put the Nationals here.

“I think,” he said, “that’s the way I look at all those failures. And even now my failures still help me be successful. You appreciate it even more. This is definitely truly special in a sense that I can appreciate where I came from to where I’m at now.”

The Washington Nationals are one win away from their first World Series. (Getty Images)
The Washington Nationals are one win away from their first World Series. (Getty Images)

Rendon’s hair was a mess, all frizzy on top. He walked lightly atop shower shoes. He wore a T-shirt with the sleeves cut off and looked a little too lean, that autumn gauntness when nine months of baseball seems to settle into a ballplayer’s cheeks and posture. He was, still, fast to grin at a recounting of a diving play he’d made hours before.

“At the end,” he said, “it’s just a game. There are bigger things going on in this world than the 90-foot bases and the 330-foot fences. So, I mean, if you don’t have fun out here in this game or in anything you do, you probably shouldn’t be doing it. So, in the end, just have fun.”

When he is 36, and that’s seven years away, Rendon said, he probably won’t be hitting .344. Maybe, he said, because it’d be tough to reach pitches from his living room.

“Hopefully not playing baseball,” he said with a laugh. “Probably sitting on the couch hanging out with my kids. He’s probably going to play another 20 years.”

First, of course, they’ll play another day. Just one. See how that goes. Then go from there. Believe in that. Someone mentioned destiny, and Adam Eaton held up his hand.

“Well,” he said, “we’re destined tomorrow to play. That’s about it.”

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