Washington Nationals fans celebrate after Game 4 of the National League Championship Series on Tuesday night in Washington. The Nationals are heading to the World Series for the first time in franchise history. Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

WASHINGTON — It ended as these games end, with a pile of humanity in the middle of a diamond, and that’s the image that these Washington Nationals will hang on walls throughout the city. But at the bottom of that pile Tuesday night at the center of Nationals Park, so many memories were squashed. Repress them, Washington, because there are new versions now. Where grief was once expected, now there’s nothing but possibility.

These Nationals changed that for themselves and for their city. They beat the St. Louis Cardinals 7-4 in Game 4 of the National League Championship Series, completing a sweep at a delirious ballpark whose denizens preferred not to, or simply couldn’t, sit down. In a town with a baseball history that can best be described as complicated, the significance of that victory is multilayered.

What matters, though, is just one thing: The Washington Nationals are going to the World Series.

“That sounds pretty sweet,” said first baseman Ryan Zimmerman, the only player who has appeared in all 15 seasons since this franchise returned baseball to the nation’s capital. “Been through a lot. Obviously, got close before. But this group of guys – wow.”

Hall of Famer Walter Johnson pitched in two World Series for the Washington Senators. AP file photo

The heartache of previous Nationals’ teams was fresh in the minds of so many of the 43,976 who attended Tuesday’s game. But the angst that goes back generations here is rooted only in baseball failures but, worse, baseball’s absence.

Washington’s most recent World Series appearance came in 1933 – in a different time, with a different franchise. Back then, the Senators of Goose Goslin, Heinie Manush and Joe Cronin were no match for the New York Giants, losing in five games. Eight years prior, Walter Johnson – forever the best player in Washington history, a Hall of Famer – pitched Game 7 against the Pittsburgh Pirates. But shortstop Roger Peckinpaugh booted one ball in the seventh, another in the eighth, and the Pirates came from behind to win.

So 1924 stands as the high-water mark in Washington baseball’s development, the only World Series title, built not only on the right arm of Johnson, who came out of the bullpen for four shutout innings of relief in Game 7, but on the bad – or, in Washington’s case, great – bounce of Bucky Harris’ grounder to third, which scored two runs and allowed the Senators to come back and win the city’s only baseball championship.

Before this October, Harris’ ball off a pebble could have been considered the most recent meaningful bounce in D.C. history. It was 95 years ago.

But at least in those days, there were bad hops – and lousy finishes – to lament. The Senators and their fans, a dwindling lot, suffered for decades.

One team left for Minnesota to become the Twins.

An expansion team replaced it for 11 seasons before it left for Texas to become the Rangers. Between them, from 1933-71, they combined for five winning seasons followed. You can’t be a baseball fan in the District of Columbia and not know the phrase, “Washington: First in war, first in peace, last in the American League.”

But then came 33 summers without baseball.

President Richard Nixon threw out the first pitch on Opening Day 1969 in Washington, D.C., as Washington Senators manager Ted Williams, left, looks on. The Senators left town four years later, leaving Washington, D.C., without a major league baseball team for 33 years. Associated Press

So for longtime Washingtonians, there has been a legitimate question as to what’s worse: the jarring pain from kick-in-the-stomach postseason losses, or the dull ache of not having baseball at all?

When Major League Baseball moved the Montreal Expos to Washington before the 2005 season, considering such questions seemed unrealistic. The re-branded Nationals were a mess of an organization that had been owned and run, nearly into the ground, by MLB itself. They made run-down RFK Stadium their temporary home. They finished in last place five of their first six years. Their farm system was threadbare, their scouting operation understaffed, the ballpark outdated. The playoffs seemed out of reach. Not in a specific season. In any season.

In 2006, MLB sold the franchise to the family of local real estate magnate Ted Lerner, and a slow rebuild began. The first winning season – and first National League East title – came in 2012, and October baseball somehow transformed into an expectation. Yet each appearance caused a wound, losses in the first round in ’12, ’14, ’16, and ’17. Those who care know the gruesome particulars. They also understand those events, when Nationals Park emptied in a near silent shuffle to Metro and beyond, make the accomplishment Tuesday night mean more.

“We’re in uncharted waters,” said Mark Lerner, Ted’s son and now the club’s managing principal owner. “The Cardinals have been through it. The Dodgers have been through it. This is all new for everybody in this building.”

That this club altered that trajectory borders on preposterous. The numbers that need to be known, that could be on T-shirts and tattoos around here, are 19-31 and 5/23. On May 23 – all together now – the New York Mets finished off a four-game sweep of the Nationals, who were on pace to lose 100 games. Only one team in the National League owned a worse record. The World Series? Please. A winning record seemed unlikely.

“Obviously, I wasn’t too happy,” Lerner said. “Nobody was. I couldn’t imagine what happened the rest of the season. I would have never believed where we are today. A turnaround like that only happens once in a blue moon, so I can’t say I totally expected it. I didn’t.”

Who did? Maybe – maybe – the people inside the clubhouse, who understand that 50 games gone in a season means there are 112 left. Manager Dave Martinez, criticized in a disappointing 2018 as well as through May, remained outwardly buoyant. His approach, stated perhaps 112 more times, was to enter each day with a single goal: go 1-0 today.

“You got to earn it,” said veteran infielder Howie Kendrick, named the most valuable player of the series. “All the losing in the past, all the failures . . . it makes it sweeter.”

From May 24 through Tuesday night, the Nationals have the best record in baseball.

“I love this team, man,” said retired outfielder Jayson Werth, a central figure on the previous four Nats playoff teams. “It takes talent. But it takes chemistry, too, and these guys prove that.”

What’s left to prove: only winning a World Series championship, either against the New York Yankees or the Houston Astros. But for now, allow yourself a long, sweet, exhale, and consider what’s ahead and what’s past. Since its last World Series, Washington has been a laughingstock of a loser, a baseball wasteland, and a reclamation project.

Now, the Nationals are National League champions. It’s the kind of accomplishment that a team and its town woke up to on Wednesday morning, looking at the scars that have now healed, and feeling pretty darned good about itself.

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