WASHINGTON (AP) — It was merely the first inning, yet fans kept rising out of their seats to applaud or yell or twirl their red towels, to chant "Let's go, Nats!" and "M-V-P!" and various players' names, enjoying every moment of a seven-run outburst that would, eventually, propel their city to its first World Series appearance in 86 years.
And then, a couple of hours and several innings later, as the Washington Nationals were protecting a shrinking lead, those same spectators, 43,976 strong, stood and shouted and reveled some more Tuesday night, giddily counting down the outs needed to finish off an NL Championship Series sweep of the St. Louis Cardinals.
From 19-31 during a mediocre May to the Fall Classic in an outstanding October.
Extending their stunning turnaround, the wild-card Nationals got RBIs from middle-of-the-order stars Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto in that breakout first inning, and Patrick Corbin's 12-strikeout performance and a trio of relievers helped hold on to beat St. Louis 7-4 in Game 4 of a lopsided best-of-seven NLCS.
"Often, bumpy roads lead to beautiful places," manager Dave Martinez said, "and this is a beautiful place."
Now NLCS MVP Howie Kendrick and his teammates get plenty of time to rest and set up their rotation before beginning in a week against the Houston Astros or New York Yankees. Houston leads the best-of-seven AL Championship Series 2-1 after winning Game 3 at New York 4-1 Tuesday.
"You only learn how to win through mistakes and failures," Kendrick said. "All those failures paid off today."
The last time the World Series came to the nation's capital was 1933, when the Washington Senators lost to the New York Giants in five games. The lone baseball championship for the city was in 1924, when the Senators defeated the Giants.
The Senators eventually left D.C., which didn't have a team at all for more than three decades until the Montreal Expos — who were founded in 1969 and never made it to the World Series — moved to Washington in 2005. The Nationals had never managed to advance in the postseason since arriving, going 0-4 in the NLDS over the last seven years.
But this month alone they beat the Milwaukee Brewers in the NL wild-card game after trailing 3-1 heading to the eighth, and eliminated the Los Angeles Dodgers in a dramatic Game 5 in the NL Division Series after trailing 3-1 heading to the eighth again. Then came this lopsided dismissal of the Cardinals, who were outscored 20-6 in the series.
The Nationals became the fourth team to reach the World Series after being 12 games under .500.
Corbin, a left-handed pitcher signed with $140 million of the money that became available last offseason when Bryce Harper left town to join the Philadelphia Phillies, was not quite the equal of Washington's other starters in the series.
Still, he did become the first pitcher to strike out 10 batters in the first four innings of a postseason game and earned the win after allowing four runs in five innings. Then Martinez — who so many folks thought might be fired back in May during his second season — turned to his NL-worst bullpen, such a problem for so much of this season.
After Tanner Rainey got three outs, and Sean Doolittle got five, Daniel Hudson came in for his fourth save in four chances this postseason. It wasn't easy, though: After replacing Doolittle with two outs in the eighth, Hudson hit his first batter and walked his second, bringing pinch-hitter Matt Carpenter to the plate as the go-ahead run with the bases loaded.
Carpenter, a career .481 batter with the bases full, grounded out to second baseman Brian Dozier, a defensive replacement who briefly lost the ball before gathering it and throwing to first to end that inning.
Hudson finished things with a 1-2-3 ninth, getting Tommy Edman on a fly ball to center field to end it. Players ran out of the dugout to meet in the center of the diamond while red fireworks went off around the stadium.
Dating to the final week of the regular season, the surging Nationals have won 16 of their past 18 games.
Corbin got this evening started with a 1-2-3 top of the first, striking out all three Cardinals with a high, 95 mph fastball, a real contrast to the off-speed stuff Stephen Strasburg used for his own dozen Ks a night earlier.
In the bottom half, Washington put up those seven runs, all charged to rookie Dakota Hudson, who lasted all of 15 pitches — doing to the Cardinals what they did in the previous round, when they scored 10 to open Game 5 of the NLDS against Atlanta.
All the heartache of playoffs past seemed to dissipate during an evening that only briefly was tense for the home team and its supporters: In the fifth, a juggled Cardinals lineup finally awoke, scoring three runs — one more than the team managed to produce in Games 1-3 combined — to get within 7-4.
With a man on second and the tying run in the on-deck circle, Corbin came through, striking out St. Louis' 3-4 hitters, Paul Goldschmidt and Marcell Ozuna, with sliders.
Cardinals: Their next game will come in spring training, an exhibition at home in Jupiter, Florida, on Feb. 22.
Nationals: They will play Games 1 and 2 of the World Series at the AL team's stadium, because both the Astros (107) and Yankees (103) won more games than Washington's 93 in the regular season. Games 3, 4 and, if necessary, 5 will be at Nationals Park. Washington did not face either Houston or New York in interleague play in 2019.