WASHINGTON — The first League Championship Series game held in Washington, D.C. was a party for most of the 43,675 fans who attended on Monday night. The second one could be a long-awaited coronation.
The Washington Nationals, heirs to almost a century of baseball anguish in the nation’s capital, beat the St. Louis Cardinals, 8-1, to take a three-games-to-none advantage in the best-of-seven National League Championship Series.
Stephen Strasburg continued the Nationals’ pitching dominance over the Cardinals with seven superb innings, striking out 12 and allowing only one unearned run, in the seventh. Offensively, the burden fell to Howie Kendrick, a new Mr. October who hit three doubles, knocked in three runs and scored twice for the Nationals, who have never trailed in the series. Kendrick has nine runs batted in this postseason and is batting .314.
“He’s the greatest ever,” said third baseman Anthony Rendon, who made a glittering defensive play and added two hits, including an R.B.I. double. “You see the man. He’s what, 36 years old? And he’s still doing it.”
With one more win, the Nats will capture the first National League pennant in franchise history and become the first Washington team — there have been three since 1901 — to earn a trip to the World Series since the Washington Senators of the American League did it in 1933 with players like Heinie Manush and Goose Goslin.
That team lost in five games to the New York Giants. The Senators had beaten the Giants in 1924 for the city’s only World Series title. That franchise moved to Minnesota in 1961, becoming the Twins, eight years before the advent of league championship series. (Another incarnation of the Senators, an expansion team, moved to Texas as the Rangers in 1972.)
“We’re not trying to look at the big picture here,” Adam Eaton told reporters after the game. “You guys all do and it’s really cool and all that, but as the players that actually have to go out there and do it, you’ve got to keep it simple or you’ll get overwhelmed.”
For the Cardinals, one of the sport’s giants, the chances of recovering are almost negligible. Only one team has ever come back from an 0-3 deficit to win a best-of-seven series. The Boston Red Sox did it against the Yankees in the 2004 American League Championship Series, and went on to beat the Cardinals in a four-game World Series sweep.
“We’ve got to get a lead at some point in this series,” said Mike Shildt, the frustrated manager of the Cardinals. “Hard to win a game if you can’t get a lead.”
But that has been impossible against a starting rotation that has become almost untouchable, including Strasburg, whose combined a live fastball with an excellent changeup on Monday. When he came out of the game after striking out the final two batters in the seventh he was greeted by his teammates Gerardo Parra and Anibal Sanchez, who wrapped him in a double bear hug of joy and appreciation.
“I’m not much of a hugger,” Strasburg said, “but they just surrounded me, so I just had to take it.”
Strasburg and many of the Nationals seemed to feed off the energy of the fans, who wore red jerseys and waved red towels and started making plans for the first World Series in Washington since the Great Depression.
The Nationals moved to the nation’s capital from Montreal in 2005. As the Expos, they lost to the Los Angeles Dodgers in the franchise’s only previous appearance in the N.L.C.S., in 1981. The Nationals played in a division series four times and never won until this year, which has been remarkable almost from the beginning.
They lost Bryce Harper in free agency and found themselves 12 games under .500 on May 23, but came back to win 93 games, then won the N.L. wild-card game. They trailed the Dodgers, 3-1, in the eighth inning of the decisive Game 5 of their division series, then tied the score and ultimately won with Kendrick’s grand slam in the 10th.
In the first two games of the N.L.C.S., starting pitchers Anibal Sanchez and Max Scherzer both took no-hitters into the seventh inning, and the series has been completely one-sided. Including the regular season, the Nationals have won 15 of their last 17 games.
On Monday, Strasburg gave up a hit to Marcell Ozuna in the second inning to eliminate the possibility of another no-hit bid, but it was the Nationals who did the early scoring, pushing four runners across the plate in the third inning, two of whom came home on Kendrick’s double.
Kendrick went into the game with six R.B.I. in the postseason, four of them on his grand slam in Los Angeles. This time he drilled a 2-1 sinker from Flaherty that was on the outside corner, and sent it into the gap in right-center field. The ball traveled all the way to the wall, allowing Rendon and Juan Soto to score as the fans roared.
“We were 19-31,” Kendrick said of the Nationals’ low point in May. “People were counting us out already. I feel like, from that point on, we took off.”
And they keep getting better. Ever since that eighth inning against the Dodgers in Game 5, the Nationals have played almost perfect baseball. It has put them on the brink of something their city has not seen in 86 years — the same amount of time it took the Red Sox to end their championship drought.
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