WASHINGTON -- The game was essentially over in the first inning. With chants of "Let's go Nats!" echoing from the first pitch, and then chants of "Let's go Corbin!" as Nationals starter Patrick Corbin mowed down the Cardinals with three strikeouts to begin the game, and then "M-V-P!" chants as Anthony Rendon stepped up with two runners on, the Nationals never let the Cardinals breathe. They never let them breathe the entire series.
The Nationals ambushed the Cardinals with a seven-run first inning -- a ridiculous amount of action packed into 21 pitches that included six hits, a sacrifice fly, a sacrifice bunt and two horrific defensive miscues -- and held on for a 7-4 victory to complete a sweep in the National League Championship Series and reach the first World Series in franchise history. The Cardinals got the go-ahead run to the plate in the eighth inning, but never led for a single inning in the four games.
It was complete domination, with the vaunted Nationals rotation leading the way as the Cardinals hit just .130. The four Nationals starters -- Anibal Sanchez, Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Corbin -- allowed five runs in 26.2 innings, three of those in the fifth inning off Corbin in the clinching game. It means for the first time since 1933, when the Washington Senators played the New York Giants at old Griffith Stadium, the World Series will be played in the nation's capital. The Nationals, born as the Montreal Expos in 1969 and residents of D.C. since 2005, become the 29th franchise to reach the World Series. Only the Seattle Mariners have never reached one.
Back in May, the odds of that happening were long. The Nationals stumbled to a 19-31 start through May 23 and owned the second-worst record in the National League.
"I don't think we paid too much attention to our record," Rendon said after the game. "We knew where we were at one point, but we knew where we wanted to go. The season wasn't over and back then we were upset, but it was still the first half of the season. You don't win the division or the World Series in the first half of the season."
There were rumors that manager Dave Martinez could lose his job and even that Scherzer could go on the trade block if the Nationals didn't turn things around. According to FanGraphs, their playoff odds on that date were 22.2%. Their odds of reaching the World Series: 3.9%.
"It wasn't by design to get 12 games under .500 and try and battle ourselves back, but we earned 12 games under .500," president of baseball operations Mike Rizzo said. "But then we also earned about .720 ball the rest of the way."
The Nationals didn't fire Martinez. They kept Scherzer. The rotation got on a roll and the offense started clicking. Trea Turner was out from April 3 to May 17. Rendon had played just one game between April 21 and May 7 (and still ended up leading the majors in RBIs). Juan Soto was hitting .246/.358/.435 on May 20, but the 20-year-old super sophomore hit .295/.414/.587 the rest of the way.
To a man, the players stressed the importance of the veteran leadership on the team.
"We knew we were going to be the oldest team in the league," Scherzer said. "Everyone said that was a negative. We looked at it as a positive. I'm one of the old guys. Us old guys can still play. I think the older guys bring a lot of value to the clubhouse. The experience we bring, the emotions we bring, all that helps."
After May 23, the Nationals went 74-38, tied with the Dodgers for the best record in the NL (the Astros went 74-37). That was their first comeback. They won 93 games and hosted the wild-card game against the Brewers. That was the setting for comeback No. 2: Trailing 3-1 in the bottom of the eighth, they rallied for three runs against Brewers closer Josh Hader to win 4-3. That led to comeback No. 3: They trailed 2-1 in the division series to the Dodgers before Scherzer won Game 4 and then trailed 3-1 in the eighth inning in Game 5 when Rendon and Soto smacked home runs on consecutive pitches off Clayton Kershaw to tie the game. Howie Kendrick's grand slam in the 10th would win it.
The Nationals, tough-luck losers in several playoff series in recent years, were finally over that hump of winning a playoff series. Rizzo, the team's general manager since August 2009, has guided the franchise for more than 10 years and eight consecutive winning seasons.
"I think every year we're going to the World Series," he said on the field after the trophy presentation. "We've been in the playoffs five times in eight years. We've won more games than any team in the majors except the Dodgers in that time. So every year we head to spring training expecting to win the World Series. Get to the playoffs and you've got a puncher's chance."
The Nationals didn't give much of a chance to the Cardinals in the NLCS. Sanchez took a no-hitter into the eighth inning in Game 1. Scherzer took a no-hitter into the seventh inning in Game 2. Strasburg struck out 12 with no walks in Game 3. Corbin struck out 12 in just five innings in Game 4. The Cardinals did fight back and loaded the bases with two outs in the eighth, but Daniel Hudson got Matt Carpenter on a hard grounder to second base. Hudson then closed it out with a 1-2-3 ninth.
Only three teams previously had been 12 games under .500 and reached the World Series: the 1914 "Miracle" Boston Braves, the 1973 Mets and the 2005 Astros.
Martinez had a heart procedure in mid-September -- a cardiac catheterization -- after feeling chest pains. Before the game he mentioned that doctors had told him to sit a little more during games. "It's tough to do, but I'm doing it, and it's helped a lot," he said.
As the National League championship trophy was presented, Martinez looked to his team behind him: "These guys right here cured my heart. The heart feels great."