To think, Washington Nationals World Series hero Howie Kendrick almost fell through the cracks, as a victim of height bias and being a stranger to the travel ball circuit that is now the major pipeline for future MLB pros is frightening.
When the 14-year MLB veteran blasted a two-run, go-ahead homer in the seventh inning of Game 7, it was his second of two legendary October bombs that helped propel the Washington Nationals to the first World Series in franchise history.
With Zack Greinke rolling in vintage form, the Houston Astros fans were nursing a 2-0 lead, counting down the outs and chilling the champagne back in the clubhouse.
The game was so silent — almost boring — that you knew something cataclysmic was going to happen for somebody.
Then, Kendrick came up in the seventh inning and poked an opposite-field moneymaker off the foul pole in right field, turning a 2-1 deficit into a 3-2 Nats lead, which ended in a 6-2 win.
It was a bomb that will live forever in baseball lore as one of the greatest World Series moments.
“I was looking at it like, man, stay fair, stay fair,” Kendrick said on the Fox Sports postgame show.
It was even more impactful than his go-ahead grand slam in the 10th inning of Game 5 of the NLDS that silenced the Dodger Stadium crowd with one mighty swing from a diminutive Black Knight who was counted out so many times.
Howie’s heroics also helped make him an improbable NL Championship MVP and Nats maligned coach Dave Martinez a hero. After coming up short in the NLDS four times, losing in three Game 5s (2012, ’16 and ’17), Washington finally overcame the hump and soared to a title.
Somewhere out there, Dusty Baker is lamenting the fact that he was a Howie Kendrick short of getting this job done years ago.
Overlooked, Under Promoted
Right now, the Black Knight stands tall at 5-foot-10, a World Series champion with over almost 15 years of MLB service. Back in the days, however, nobody wanted to give a shot to a 5-foot-7, 110-pound unknown baller out of West Nassau High in Callahan, Florida.
The Jacksonville native tried out for almost a dozen junior colleges, was cut by two and contemplated saying “f*ck it” and joining the Navy SEALs.
His varsity coach Richard Pearce knew he was the goods and according to a Washington Post interview recalls how he desperately tried to get Kendrick recruited. “I traveled the country trying to find anyone who would listen,” Pearce said. “But they didn’t want the little guy.”
In addition to being one of the smallest guys on the field, Kendrick, the son of a mom who was often away on military duty, didn’t have the privilege of playing travel ball. His grandmother, however, encouraged him to play with the local Little League and he took to the sport. Without travel experience, Kendrick lacked the exposure afforded players who worked the circuit and the college showcases that go along with it.
Kendrick didn’t give up and landed at St. John’s River Community College between Jacksonville and Orlando.
As fate would have it, he was eventually spotted by the right scout and drafted by The Los Angeles of Anaheim Angels in the 10th round of the 2002 draft. By 2006 he was the 12th top prospect according to Baseball America and immediately earned a reputation as a polished pro hitter.
Kendrick spent the first nine years of his career with the Anaheim Angels before making stops with the Dodgers and Phillies.
Kendrick ended up on the Nationals via trade two summers ago and would have retired after tearing his right Achilles’ tendon last season at age 35, but he had one year left on his contract, and he wanted to fulfill his commitments to the team.
Howie’s sicko mode exit interview might have bought him a couple more seasons as a veteran bat for another contending squad. Or a rebuilding franchise looking for a stabilizing veteran to lead by example.
He undoubtedly saved his best for last as he had career-highs in batting average (.344), OPS (.966) and slugging (.572). He also added 17 homers and 62 RBI’s.
In just 344 official at-bats Kendrick impacted the Nationals as much as any player on the team. And helped turn a floundering 19-31 squad into champions, conquering two 100-win Goliaths along the way.