Howie Kendrick: 2019 post-season hero

Without the hitting heroics of Howie Kendrick, the Washington Nationals would not have reached the 2019 World Series. The veteran infielder, acquired at the trade deadline in 2017 for a minor league pitcher who never made it, had a career season in 2019. Then, his 10th-inning grand slam beat the favored Dodgers in Game Five of the N.L. Division Series and his two-run homer in Game Seven of the World Series put the Nats ahead for good.

In between, Kendrick was voted the MVP of the N.L. Championship Series, in which the Nats swept the Cardinals in four games. He had 12 post-season RBIs. Not bad for a player who had waited 1,596 games to make it to a World Series. (Teammate Ryan Zimmerman, who – of course! – hit the Nationals’ first World Series homer, waited 1,689 games. Both players happily dropped off the Top-15 list in that category.)

Kendrick always could hit. He carried a .290+ career average when he joined the Nats after 11 and a half seasons, mostly with the Angels. He had been an All-Star there and had often played in the post-season with both Los Angles teams. Despite hitting .340 in 39 games with Philadelphia, the Phils sent him to D.C. at the deadline in 2017 in what was probably a salary dump. In D.C., he hit .293 in 52 games. He pitch-hit three times for the Nats against the Cubs in the NLDS, walking once.

Born in Jacksonville, Florida, Howie grew up in nearby Callahan, just south of the Georgia border. He didn’t draw much attention from scouts because he was relatively small, probably a tad less than his listed 5-foot-11 adult height, and he hadn’t shown much power.

After playing for a junior college team, the Angels drafted him in the 10th round in 2002 — the 294th player picked. But Howie hit .358 in minors before making his MLB debut in 2006. Despite hitting .322 and .306 his first two seasons in part time duty, he didn’t become the everyday second baseman until 2010, a job he held for the next five seasons. He was an All-Star in 2011.

The Angels traded him to the Dodgers in December 2014 and after becoming a free agent, re-signed with the Dodgers at the start of spring training in 2016. That fall, the Dodgers traded Kendrick to the Phils, who didn’t figure to make the post-season in 2017. So they traded him to the Nats.

The Nationals signed Howie to a two-year contract that off-season. Off to nice start as a role player in 2018, he ruptured his Achilles tendon after 40 games. At age 34, this could have been a career-ending injury, but Kendrick was determined that it not end that way. He worked hard to be ready for 2019. Even so, the Nats didn’t know what to expect from him.

“I told them before I left. I said, ‘I’ll be ready for spring training,’” Kendrick told the Washington Post in an interview after the World Series. “Some people were like, ‘Yeah, yeah; we’ll see.’”

He exceeded all expectation, hitting so well that Manager Davey Martinez had to get him in the lineup as much as possible while still trying to keep him fresh. (Indeed, Howie missed a few games in August with a hamstring injury.) Still, Kendrick hit .344 in 370 plate appearance for the season. His slugging average, thanks to 17 homers, was a robust .966, more than 100 points higher than his previous best.

In the NLDS, after the 106-win Dodgers had taken a 2-games-to-1 lead, the Nats forced a fifth game by winning Game Four in D.C. behind Max Scherzer. In the eighth inning on Oct. 11 in Los Angeles, back-to-back homers by Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto off Clayton Kershaw, on in relief, tied the game, 3-3.

Joe Kelly, in his second inning of relief, walked Adam Eatron to start the top of the 10th. Rendon followed with a ground-rule double that stuck in the padding of the left-field wall. Kelly then walked Soto intentionally. After fouling off a pitch, Kendrick hit one over the center-field fence. This was just the second extra-inning grand slam in the playoffs or the World Series. (Coincidentally, the other was hit by a 2022 National, Nelson Cruz, in the 2011 A.L. Championship Series.)

“He carried us for three months,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said after the Nats swept the Cards in the NLCS. “He’s had a magical season.” Little did Rizzo know more magic was to come in Houston.

In 2019 World Series, for the first time ever, the visiting team won every game. Yet in the seventh inning of Game Seven in Houston, the Nationals’ chances against veteran Zake Grienke didn’t look good. He had shut them out for first six and got the first out on routine grounder. Then, on an 0-2 pitch, Rendon took Grienke deep, cutting Houston’s lead in half. Soto walked on a 3-1 pitch, and Grienke’s night was over.

Astros manager A.J. Hinch brought in Will Harris, whose ERA was 1.50 with more than a strikeout per inning in 2019. He had retired Howie three times already in the series, so it seemed like a sensible move. Until it wasn’t.

Kendrick hit the second pitch from Harris, low on the outside part of the plate, deep but on a low trajectory down the right-field line. The Nats’ bench figured it was curving foul, but somehow it stayed high enough, long enough, to clear the fence and hit the pole for a two-run homer and a 3-2 Washington lead.

Patrick Corbin and Daniel Hudson kept the Astros at bay as the Nats tacked on a run in eighth and two more in the ninth on a clutch single by Kendrick’s dugout buddy, Adam Eaton. In the ninth, Hudson struck out the last two Astros, winners of 107 games in the regular season, and the wild-card Nationals were improbable world champions.

Asked after the game what he was thinking as he watched his home-run ball: “Stay fair!” Kendrick yelled. “I knew it had a chance, but I thought it might have hit the wall.”

Zimmerman, the longest tenured National and thus the focus of many post-game questions, gave Howie his due: “When you talk about a professional hitter, someone who can grind out at-bats, someone who gives you a professional at-bat every single time, doesn’t waste at-bats, that’s him.”

The grateful Nationals re-signed Kendrick for 2020, but the season was limited to 60 games because of the Covid-19 pandemic and the National finished tied for fourth in the N.L. East. Howie decided to call it a career that December.

In an Instagram post on December 21, he spoke fondly of his times in D.C: “My Beloved Washington Nationals, thank you for embracing me as one of your own. I feel as though I’d been a National my whole career and the wild, humbling and crazy ride we had in 2019 truly culminated everything I’d learned in my career, and we all became World Champions.”

Kendrick’s page on the Baseball Almanac website recounts an interesting story from his A.L. days that was originally reported by Sports Illustrated:

At Fenway Park, I leaned into the stands to catch a pop-up. I felt my arm hit somebody’s arm, but I ran to the dugout, not paying attention. The crowd was booing really loud. Our pitching coach, Buddy Black, goes, ‘That’s Ben Affleck you stole the ball from.’ I looked over, and sure enough, it was Ben, next to Jennifer Garner.”

Sadly, the Nationals must not have offered the retired Kendrick a decent job in the organization. Instead, he took one as a special assistant to the GM of the Phillies, for whom he had just a short relationship. Ouch.

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