HOUSTON -- In a corridor next to the celebration that nobody wanted to end, the man who started the game that won the Washington Nationals a World Series wrapped his arm around the man who finished it. Max Scherzer is one of the greatest pitchers of this generation, a tightly wound perfectionist whose eyes flit with nervous energy. Daniel Hudson is a journeyman relief pitcher who was jobless in March and somehow found himself here, in the middle of history.
Black swimming goggles covered Scherzer's eyes. When he removed them, there were tears, not from the burning of champagne sprays but the emotion bombarding his amygdala. It happened. It really happened. Three days earlier, Scherzer was supposed to start Game 5, only for his neck to lock up so badly he couldn't turn his head. Two days earlier, he prayed a cortisone shot and chiropractic treatment would offer some kind of relief. A day earlier, he watched the Nationals save their season and gift him an opportunity at redemption. And on Wednesday, he stood on the mound in Game 7 against the Houston Astros facing the cruelest of binaries: win a championship or lose everything.
"It could've been anybody," Scherzer said.
"No, it couldn't have," Hudson said.
"I did everything I could," Scherzer said. "I'm just a part of this team. I'm not bigger than this team. I'm just the guy who got the ball tonight and started."
Tears welled in his eyes again. Scherzer could sandbag all he wanted, but he knew he was more than just the guy who got the ball in Wednesday night's start. He was the one who labored through five innings, all toil and tenacity. He kept the Nationals alive long enough to do what they've done for the past five months: not just win but win improbably. And that defiance, exhibited one final time in a 6-2 victory that brought the nation's capital its first baseball championship in 95 years and the Nationals their first in franchise history, drove the 25 men on the roster, the front office that abides deeply by tenets that other organizations in baseball believe are antiquated, and an ownership group that emboldened both.
"My whole life," Scherzer said, "I dreamed of being a big leaguer. And when you dream of being a big leaguer ..."
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He turned to Hudson, and it was like they were reading each other's minds, because they spoke word for word simultaneously:
"You dream of winning the World Series."
On the surface, what happened Wednesday night didn't make sense. The Astros were a juggernaut. They won 107 games. They built a superteam equipped to blitz the postseason. They shook off losing the first two games of the series at home, stole three games at Nationals Park and returned to Minute Maid Park for their coronation. They would not lose. They could not lose.
And they didn't just lose but lost to a 93-win team that needed a frenzied late-inning comeback to win the wild-card game and late-inning heroics to win their division series. They lost to a Nationals team that began the season 19-31, entered the playoffs with a paucity of relief pitching and had spent past Octobers suffering catastrophic defeats. They lost, ultimately, in a way no major professional sports team -- not baseball, not basketball, not hockey -- ever had: dropping four games at home.
The seeming impossibility of that led to declarations that the Nationals were some team of destiny, some kind of miracle workers. No. That's too easy to say, too effortless a distillation of this team and this result. This was not preordained. This was nothing supernatural. What happened Wednesday night made all the sense in the world.
For the first six innings of Game 7, the Washington Nationals flailed and failed. Zack Greinke, the third head of the Astros' starting-pitching Cerberus alongside Gerrit Cole and Justin Verlander, vexed them. His fastball rarely touched 90 mph, and his curveball fluttered as low as 64 mph, and he could throw at every speed in between. In a game of velocity and power, Greinke is a hypnotist, and he was lulling the Nationals into a state of slumber that threatened to end their season.
Then came the seventh. With one out, Anthony Rendon stepped to the plate. Rendon carries himself with the sort of lethargy Greinke can induce. It's a red herring; Rendon is one of the game's finest hitters, and when he lifted a changeup into the left-field stands and halved the Astros' lead, it awoke something in Washington.
Rendon tended to do that. This was the Nationals' fifth elimination game this postseason. In the seventh inning and beyond in those games, he had doubled three times, homered twice and walked once. He was the Nationals' heartbeat on offense, which was convenient, because he is preternaturally bradycardic, made for these moments. Never does Rendon so much as crack a smile on the field, which can be disarming, though he did allow himself a tremendous grin on the field before the Nationals' trophy presentation, yelling: "I want bourbon!"
Within earshot was Juan Soto, a hitting prodigy whose prodigious World Series was even more incredible because he turned 21 this week. He might like a nip of bourbon, considering how his night was going. "I drink everything," Soto said. "I just want to try everything. I love the champagne."
Soto had come to the plate after Rendon. He joined the Nationals last season at 19 when a deluge of injuries to outfielders decimated their depth. Immediately he was one of the best hitters in baseball, and he reinforced that this season and this October. Soto stood in against Greinke, spit on an outside pitch, swung at the next and took another. With a 2-1 count, Greinke feathered a changeup in the bottom of the strike zone. Plate umpire Jim Wolf didn't move. It was called a ball -- a lucky break at the most inopportune time for the Astros. Greinke lost a curveball outside, and Soto jogged to first, the tying run on base, still one out.
Out of the Astros' dugout walked AJ Hinch, their manager. Greinke, cruising six pitches earlier, was done. "I feel like when he come out of the game, we say, 'Daddy's out. Now we gotta get it,'" Soto said. "We gotta get it, we gotta fight, we gotta find out the way -- and the next hitter, we get it."
The next hitter was Howie Kendrick. He debuted in the major leagues when Soto was 7, hung around because he always could hit and this season, at 36 years old, enjoyed a career year. In the division series against the 106-win Los Angeles Dodgers, Kendrick launched a 10th-inning go-ahead grand slam. In the NLCS against the St. Louis Cardinals, he whacked four doubles and won series MVP honors. And now, with Greinke out, he faced Will Harris, the Astros' fireman whose work with inherited runners had helped the Astros out of many a jam in October. In Washington, Harris had used his cut fastball, a pitch that ruined countless at-bats this season, to stymie Kendrick. On his second pitch, Harris loosed a cutter, low and on the outside corner, and Kendrick ambushed it.
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The ball wasn't pummeled. It left the bat at 98 mph. It sliced toward the right-field line. It was fading, fading, fading -- and then it stopped, clanging off a metallic mesh attachment to the foul pole. The ball, stained with yellow paint from the impact, bounced onto the field. Kendrick rounded first, double fist-pumped, bellowed "Yeah!" as he rounded second, screamed "Yeah!" again as he rounded third, roared "Yeah!" once more as he crossed home.
Over the course of eight pitches, the Nationals had turned a 2-0 deficit into a 3-2 lead. Kendrick's heroics did not go unnoticed during or after the game. When he left the middle of the celebration to find his wife and sons, he walked through the bowels of the stadium wearing a pair of shorts and a T-shirt. Drips of excess booze leaked off him every few steps. In the holding area for families, he scanned the room. A fan asked if he could take a selfie. Kendrick obliged. Then another approached him and snapped a picture, and another, and another, none bothering to ask.
Kendrick escaped with his family. He ran a gantlet of high-fives and thanks and nods and congratulations. He took his wife and kids past the clubhouse, down a set of stairs and to a staging area with the World Series trophy, where Soto was posing. Gold rectangles shot out of a confetti gun every time the photographer prepared to snap a picture. This was too much. Hundreds of kids from the Dominican Republic sign with baseball teams every year. Thousands populate the minor leagues. A few hundred get to the major leagues. Far fewer win World Series.
He was in the middle of the inning that won the Nationals the trophy with which he was posing. That's not what Soto will remember, though. It's his mother, Belkis, and his father, Juan Sr., and the moment they saw him, hugged him, realized their prayers were answered.
"We made it," Soto said. "We made it. We're all living the dream."
On the day Max Scherzer's neck locked up, his wife, Erica, drove him to Nationals Park because he couldn't do it himself. Scherzer was despondent. His team needed him. He was letting them down. He was letting himself down. Erica saw it differently.
"We know Stras is going to deal in Game 6," she said. "You're going to pitch in Game 7."
Stras is Stephen Strasburg, the Cole to Scherzer's Verlander. He was famously shut down toward the end of the 2012 season, his first full year back from Tommy John surgery, because the Nationals did not want to incur any potential damage from an excessive workload. They flamed out in the division series that season, like they would do again in 2014 and 2016 and 2017. Strasburg long was the symbol of the franchise's missed opportunities.
Erica Scherzer and the Nationals saw him as something else: the savior of the season. Strasburg emerged as their workhorse this season, throwing an NL-leading 209 innings, and his playoff work had been immaculate. Strasburg had beaten Verlander in Game 2, and he was going to do it again, and then, Erica said, "This team is going to win the World Series."
"I just believed she was right," Scherzer said.
Strasburg allowed a pair of first-inning runs in Game 6, likely because the positioning of his glove tipped his pitches to the Astros. He fixed the problem after the first, threw 7⅓ shutout innings and held Houston's offense at bay long enough for Soto to hit a go-ahead home run off Verlander. Strasburg ensured there would be a seventh game. The Nationals just didn't know who would pitch it.
Just days earlier, Scherzer said, his pain level was 10 of 10. The trapezius muscle in his neck and shoulder was spasming. He received a cortisone shot and could do nothing but wait to see if it would work. He slept with a neck brace. He received multiple chiropractic adjustments. Anything to get him on the mound. By Tuesday, the pain vanished, and Scherzer's arm, which he couldn't even lift above shoulder level Sunday, rotated with its standard fury. It was like Erica said: He would start Game 7.
His first pitch, a fastball, sizzled at 97 mph. This was no reduced-calorie Scherzer. Problem is, the Astros' lineup feasts on full-fat pitching. They grind at-bats. They punish mistakes. They can make the ordinary look foolish and the excellent look ordinary. They did not win 107 games by accident. They did it by brute force.
In the second inning, Astros first baseman Yuli Gurriel smashed a home run off Scherzer into the left-field stands, one of four balls that inning hit at 100-plus mph. Hard contact can portend worse things to come, and with the Nationals getting one-hit through the fifth and the margin of error minuscule, Carlos Correa drove in another run to stake the Astros a 2-0 lead.
It could have been much worse. Scherzer allowed 11 baserunners. Just two scored. He slogged through 103 pitches. After the fifth, he offered Nationals manager Dave Martinez another inning. Martinez declined and echoed Erica Scherzer's sentiment: "We'll figure this out, and we'll win this game."
The Nationals won all four games Strasburg and Scherzer started. As they stood onstage during the trophy presentation, Strasburg was in the middle, readying to accept the World Series MVP award. Scherzer stood off to the side and wept. This was all too much. He is 35 years old now, in the twilight of his career. Scherzer remains great, but the Venn diagram of greatness and winning doesn't always intersect. He had pitched in the World Series seven years ago and lost, pitched in two other postseasons with Washington and lost. He knows how unrelenting the playoffs are, how the slightest inopportune moment can sabotage the best team.
He was the Astros' slight inopportune moment in Game 7, a saboteur for long enough that the Nationals' blitz in the seventh wasn't for naught. "I took it as far as I could," Max Scherzer said, and that happened to be far enough to win a World Series.
It's easy, on a day like this, in the post-championship glow, to forget how the Washington Nationals came to exist. They used to be the Montreal Expos. Their owner, Jeffrey Loria, intentionally ran the franchise into the ground so it could be moved and arranged a deal in which Major League Baseball took ownership of the Expos. In 2005, the Expos moved to Washington and became the Nationals.
Only one player has been with them the whole time. Ryan Zimmerman was drafted by the Nationals with the fourth overall pick that year and debuted in September. He weathered the lean years -- the sewage backups at RFK Stadium before the Nationals opened their new park, the 100-plus-loss seasons that netted them consecutive No. 1 draft picks with which they took Strasburg and Bryce Harper. Zimmerman was the Nationals' original face. He matured into their unquestioned conscience.
Today, at 35, he is one of the viejos, as Scherzer likes to call them. The Nationals go against any number of trends in the game, whether it's their age (nearly 31, the most wizened in the major leagues), their allegiance to scouting (the analytics-venerating Astros wiped out their pro scouting department) or their willingness to spend big money in free agency (Scherzer cost $210 million and starter Patrick Corbin $140 million).
As the night went on -- as Soto drove in an insurance run in the eighth inning to double the lead, and as Adam Eaton punched a bases-loaded single up the middle to extend it to 6-2 -- Zimmerman started to think of what mattered to him. For 15 years, he had devoted himself to the Nationals -- to building a contender, to fighting back from injuries, to winning for once. Everyone in the clubhouse had a story like this. Fernando Rodney, the 42-year-old reliever, had played for 17 years without winning a championship. Victor Robles, the 22-year-old center fielder, never had played a major league game in front of his mom, Marcia Brito, until she visited from the Dominican Republic this October and served as his good-luck charm.
For Zimmerman, it was the entirety of the evening. The Nationals weren't his means to an end. They were his professional life. Their owner, Ted Lerner, signed him to a $100 million contract extension. Their general manager, Mike Rizzo, surrounded him with talent developed internally and harvested externally. Their manager, Martinez, saw something in a 19-31 team that nobody else could. A 19-31 start is a death sentence. A 19-31 start with a $185 million payroll is a fireable offense. A 19-31 start, for Martinez, was an opportunity.
It's like Keith Zimmerman used to tell his son: "You make your own luck." Zimmerman kept thinking of his father's aphorisms Wednesday night, as the outs ticked away. Corbin, who had relieved Scherzer in the sixth, shut down the Astros in the seventh too, and followed with another scoreless inning in the eighth, a vital bridge that skeptics feared Washington was missing heading into October. It was a fair concern. The Nationals essentially navigated the World Series with six pitchers they trusted.
This team, Zimmerman said, could do that -- could stare at its deficiencies, own them and circumvent them. The Harper-era Nationals never could get out of their own way. Not because of Harper but because baseball does that. Sometimes it humbles ubertalented teams and elevates lesser-talented ones. The game does not operate in linear fashion.
So when Harper left and signed with the Philadelphia Phillies this offseason, there was no panic, no concern. The Nationals would adjust. They would develop a different identity.
"We were just ourselves," Zimmerman said, and that's why this whole thing made sense, why it wasn't destiny or fate or some sort of cosmic doing. It was a simple truth: The Nationals just being themselves was good enough.
At 12:45 a.m., 15 minutes before the Nationals' bus left to return to the Four Seasons near the ballpark, the clubhouse was atwitter. Rendon, who will file this week for free agency and seek a contract well in excess of $200 million, gathered his belongings. Soto, who will be the centerpiece of the team for years, danced, covered only by a towel. Kendrick, who is also a free agent, toted around a couple of cigars, even though he doesn't typically enjoy them. Strasburg, who is expected to opt out of his contract and could also hit a free-agent jackpot, loped around the room, and Scherzer changed, and Martinez scrambled to shower, and Rizzo poured a beer into a red Solo cup, and Zimmerman took a picture with his dad holding the Commissioner's Trophy, some of its flags flopping around haphazardly, damaged amid the ribaldry.
Daniel Hudson stood in front of his locker. His story was more improbable than anyone's. He was a burgeoning ace in 2012 when the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow tore and required Tommy John surgery. Eleven months later, in his first rehab start, it blew out again. Back-to-back Tommy John surgeries is as sure a death sentence as a 19-31 start.
Only Hudson returned. He kicked around in Arizona, Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay, Los Angeles. He signed with the Angels this past spring. They cut him before the season started. He latched on with Toronto, pitched well, got dealt to the Nationals at the July 31 trade deadline and, after closer Sean Doolittle was sidelined with an injury, assumed the role. And he was good at it -- good enough that when Hudson missed Game 1 of the NLCS to be with his wife, Sara, for the birth of their daughter Millie, his absence grew into a national conversation on family and priorities.
At 10:42 p.m., when the bullpen door swung open, Hudson's only priority was to get outs. He thought he would need only two. The plan was for him to face George Springer and Jose Altuve before Martinez would call on the left-hander, Doolittle, to face the left-handed-hitting Michael Brantley. The Astros had hit Hudson hard in the series. Springer had vaporized a Hudson fastball for a home run in Game 5.
On the second pitch, a fastball, Hudson popped him up. One out.
Hudson isn't much for subterfuge. He is, in many ways, like the team that acquired him. What you see is what you get -- warts and all. He relies on two pitches, a four-seam fastball and slider. He can get fastball-happy, and that can get him in trouble.
He threw three fastballs to Altuve, almost in the exact same spot. He stared at two and swung through the third. Two outs.
Martinez didn't come out to call for Doolittle. The Nationals were ahead 6-2, and Hudson was dealing, and this was it, the moment, the culmination of five months in which the Nationals were actually the Astros' equal record-wise and had far too much talent to be the underdogs they were. He was sticking with Hudson, and he saw Hudson work the count full pounding fastballs, and catcher Yan Gomes wanted to stick with the pitch. Hudson shook it off. Gomes put down the sign for fastball again. Hudson shook again. Gomes flashed the sign for a slider. Hudson came set.
Brantley swung and missed. Three outs.
Hudson chucked his glove, the one with the initials of his wife and three daughters stitched into the side, as he had when he clinched previous series. The dogpile began.
"It's a really surreal October," Hudson said earlier in the corridor. "I mean, I closed out the wild-card game. Got the win in Game 5 of the DS. Closed out the CS and the World Series. And that's not even the best thing that happened to me."
He paused for a moment.
"Did you think I'd get here?" he asked.
I've known Hudson since 2012, when I pitched him on a wild idea: let me follow him around for the next year as he comes back from Tommy John surgery so I can write a book demystifying the whole process and explaining why arm problems are so endemic in baseball. He said yes. I was there the night he blew out a second time, there the night he returned in the major leagues, there the day Millie was born earlier this month, there so many steps of the way. And as much as I admire who Hudson is as a husband and a father and a baseball player, this -- him closing out the World Series seven months after a bad team didn't think he was good enough in spring training -- felt too far-fetched to ever consider.
"No," I admitted.
"This stuff only happens in baseball, man," Hudson said. "You see stuff in other sports. But this game. It's crazy. It really is."
In the background, "We Are the Champions" played and the party raged on and it began to sink in that the Washington Nationals, the big team that couldn't for two months, were World Series champions. It was the stuff that happens only in baseball, yeah, but crazy? Nah. Not if you know who they really are.