For a team that came in favored to win the National League East, the first seven weeks of the Nationals’ season did not gone as planned.
On the night of May 23rd, the Nationals flew back home to Washington following a four-game sweep at the hands of the New York Mets. With a 19-31 record, DC sat in fourth place, ten games back in the division.
From that low-point of the season onward, the Nationals resiliency would be the defining characteristic of their World Series winning 2019 run.
The magical run of the past month has put the Nats in rare company. Not only are they the first team to win a World Series in which a road team took all seven games, but they scratched and clawed their way back from their first playoff game to their last, besting some of the game’s best players.
All told, the Nationals survived five elimination games this October, earning come-from-behind victories against some of the best starting pitchers and relievers the game has to offer.
In the wild card game against Milwaukee just a few weeks ago, Washington looked like they were going to be on the losing-end of a one-and-done home game. In the eighth inning, Washington was down by two runs with a runner on first (via a hit-by-pitch) and two outs. The Nats had an 88.3 percent chance of being sent packing by the Brewers, and were staring down relief-ace Josh Hader with their season on the line. Ryan Zimerman came up to bat with potentially only four outs remaining in the Nats’ season, and he kept the rally going.
Zimmerman singled, Anthony Rendon walked, and Juan Soto hit a bases clearing single to right field, where Christian Yelich’s understudy had an error that caused the go-ahead run to score, in an an unexpected comeback that became the signature of the 2019 Nationals’ World Series run.
Just over a week later, in another deciding game, this time in the LDS, Washington entered the eighth inning of game five against the Dodgers down 3-1. With a 12.5 percent win-expectancy, Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto smacked back-to-back home runs against Clayton Kershaw, who had come out of the bullpen the previous inning.
The Nats’ offense exploded for four more runs in the tenth inning, sealing their advancement of the LCS and defeating the favored Dodgers in front of a stunned home crowd.
Though the ALCS was an noncompetitive breeze for the Nationals (they beat the Cardinals in four straight snoozers, outscoring St. Louis 20-6 in four games), they met their match with the favored Astros in the World Series.
Despite taking a commanding 2-0 lead in the series, and improbably defeating both Gerrit Cole and Justin Verlander in Houston, Washington quickly found themselves in a 3-2 deficit, after losing all three games at home.
Resilience is the name of the game for this year’s Nationals, and although they had to face Verlander again in game six, Stephen Strasburg was every bit up for the challenge, and the Nats took yet another game in Houston, this time by a score of 7-2 in a game that was much closer than the final score.
The Nationals showcased their resilience in game six, when a near-fifteen minute break took the game over in a crucial spot when the Nats were on the bad-end of one of the silliest adjudications and by-the-letter rules interpretation in World Series history.
Despite Trea Turner’s would-be single turning into an out without the advancement of a runner from first to second (seriously, how does that make any sense?), Anthony Rendon blasted a home run which essentially put the game out of reach thanks to a shutdown Washington bullpen (a shocking development in-and-of-itself). The breakout game six led to a winner-take-all game seven.
Crazy things happen in game sevens. Starters become relievers (a recurring theme for the Nationals this entire playoffs run), misplays get magnified, and taking extra bases comes with more risk than ever.
Propelled by biggest trade deadline acquisition of the summer, the Astros were cruising with a 2-0 seventh inning lead, led by Zack Greinke’s utter dominance of the Nats lineup. With only a 15 percent probability to win at one point in the seventh, the Nats struck again.
Houston skipper A.J. Hinch decided he’d seen enough of Greinke after giving up a solo home run and a walk, and called upon one of his more reliable relievers all year, Will Harris to shut down the fire and end the inning. Harris simply didn’t have it, and the Nats managed two hits including one of the biggest home runs in franchise history coming from Howie Kendrick, who made the game 3-2.
The never-roll-over Nats managed insurance runs in the eighth and ninth innings, but had no need for them, since the Astros did not score again.
The Nationals came into the 2019 season as favorites to win the National League East. While they were hardly underdogs coming into the season, they consistently played for second place behind the Braves, who ran-away with the division they led from mid-June until the end of the season. The Nationals were not favored to beat the Dodgers or the Astros, two of the most potent top-to-bottom rosters in recent memory, but they managed to take both teams to the brink, and ultimately came out the other side.
Washington’s resilience earned them the 2019 World Series, and it was a privilege to watch their wild ride. For anyone who says baseball is boring, the Nationals postseason run this year makes a pretty good counter-argument.
Steven Martano is an Editor at Beyond the Box Score, a Contributing Prospect Writer for the Colorado Rockies at Purple Row, and a contributing writer for The Hardball Times. You can follow him on Twitter at @SMartano