The Washington Nationals are headed to the National League Championship Series for the first time since they moved to the nation's capital.
Washington defeated the Los Angeles Dodgers 7-3 in Wednesday's decisive Game 5 of the National League Division Series at Dodger Stadium. Howie Kendrick was the hero with a grand slam in the top of the 10th inning off Joe Kelly—all while Kenley Jansen and Julio Urias watched from the bullpen—after Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto helped force extra innings with back-to-back homers off Clayton Kershaw in the eighth.
The timely home runs propelled the franchise to its first playoff series win outside of a Wild Card Game since it was in Montreal in 1981.
As for Los Angeles, this marks a bitter disappointment after finishing with an NL-best 106 wins during the regular season. The Dodgers haven't won a World Series since 1988 and regressed in October this time around after reaching the last two Fall Classics.
Clayton Kershaw's Playoff Failures Haunt the Dodgers Yet Again
Kershaw is a future Hall of Famer and generational talent, but his playoff struggles are an inescapable part of his resume.
They reared their ugly head again just when it appeared as if the Dodgers would cruise to victory.
Walker Buehler was largely brilliant while battling through 6.2 innings, but Kershaw gave up the 3-1 lead in the matter of two pitches in the top of the eighth. Rendon and Soto blasted back-to-back home runs into the Los Angeles night, stunning the crowd that has been through the Kershaw roller coaster a number of times.
He is a three-time Cy Young Award winner, National League MVP, five-time ERA champion and eight-time All-Star with a career regular-season ERA of 2.44. However, his postseason ERA entering Wednesday's contest was 4.33, and the number is not a small-sample size anomaly. This was his 32nd playoff appearance spanning across nine different postseasons.
It is not hyperbole to say the Dodgers could have at least one World Series ring in recent years without his struggles.
He allowed nine earned runs in 11 innings in last year's Fall Classic against the Boston Red Sox, allowed six earned runs in 4.2 innings in a Game 5 loss that turned the series in the 2017 Fall Classic against the Houston Astros and gave up four earned runs in five innings in the final game of the 2016 NLCS against the Chicago Cubs.
Wednesday's collapse is as painful as the World Series ones because this Dodgers team should have steamrolled through the National League playoffs.
It was the only team in the NL to win more than 97 games, was facing a Nationals squad with significant bullpen concerns and was primed to take on a St. Louis Cardinals bunch that featured the fewest wins of all the division champions in the league with 91.
Combine that path with an offense that led the NL in scoring and a trio of Kershaw, Buehler and Hyun-Jin Ryu anchoring the rotation, and it was World Series or bust.
As has been the case for much of Kershaw's playoff career, it was a bust.
Nationals Refuse to Back Down
The Nationals were not supposed to be here.
They lost franchise cornerstone Bryce Harper in the offseason, started 19-31 in the first 50 games and featured a bullpen that finished dead last in the league in ERA. That's not a formula for a third-place finish in a division, let alone an NLCS appearance.
Still, Washington refused to quit.
Soto played the role of hero with a bases-clearing single (aided by an error) off Josh Hader in the eighth inning of the 4-3 NL Wild Card Game win over the Milwaukee Brewers. He and Rendon drilled the back-to-back blasts off Kershaw to set the stage for the 10th-inning drama.
That type of fight, along with the one-two punch of Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg, makes the Nationals an intriguing pick in the upcoming NLCS against the Cardinals.
Strasburg set the tone with a dominant performance in Game 2 before Scherzer came out of the bullpen to strike out the side in the eighth. Then, the latter was brilliant in Game 4 with one earned run in seven innings, and Strasburg locked in after early trouble in Wednesday's decisive game.
They will need to be effective once again during the next series given the bullpen, but Washington can at least take solace knowing it won't quit if it falls behind.
The Nationals will face the Cardinals in the NLCS, which kicks off with Friday's Game 1.