They're World Series-bound, but Nationals aren't done yet
WASHINGTON - What the Washington Nationals have done this season is like going into your backyard with a spade to plant petunias and striking oil.
Their appearance in the World Series, after completing a four-game sweep of the St. Louis Cardinals in the National League Championship Series on Tuesday night, just 14 days after facing elimination in the wild-card game, is like spilling water on Grandma's painting of an old farmhouse and finding out she had painted it over a still-pristine Picasso.
The Nats' party during their 7-4 victory in Game 4, constructed on an amazing seven-run first inning that had the crowd of 43,976 attempting to prove that mass delirium is possible, began as a romantic comedy: Town loves team, team loves town, Cardinals roll over and play dead. By the late innings, this game was a zombie slasher meets son of the Hindenburg as closer Daniel Hudson escaped a bases-loaded eighth-inning jam by getting Matt Carpenter to ground out with the bases loaded. In the end, Tanner Rainey, Sean Doolittle and Hudson held the fort for the last dozen outs - a plot twist beyond comprehension.
There is no gift like an unexpected gift, no joy like the jubilation when you anticipated sadness.
"Some of the best things come from the unexpected moments," Nats postseason hero Howie Kendrick said this week.
There is no shock like the discovery that a desperate moment - May 23 for these Nats - that felt like the end of an era of success was really a time of transformation under duress into something better, richer and more satisfying than you had imagined possible.
Just when it felt like the best era of Washington baseball since 1924 to 1933 was swirling down the drain, with the Nats' record at 19-31, suddenly everything that seemed wrong began to go right. The struggling and lame - Trea Turner, Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto - came back from the injured list and gradually got hot.
The team landed a Baby Shark named Gerardo Parra on a one-ounce test line - picked up for free, with the San Francisco Giants still paying his salary. And the team that knows how to put the huge, ugly "E" in "elimination game" suddenly became the first team in major league history to win two elimination games in the same October after trailing by three or more runs.
The Nationals - once known as the "Natinals" on their own jerseys, the same team that got knocked out of the first round of the playoffs four times - celebrated the patriarch of D.C. baseball by claiming the pennant on Ted Lerner's 94th birthday. His team knows what it has given him. And he understands what he has given to this city for the first time in 86 years.
The Nats go to the World Series as just what they love to be - disregarded, constantly underdogs. They'll face an American League champion, either the Houston Astros or the New York Yankees, that will be regarded as much their superior. But the Nats are certain in their baseball guts that this will be darn close to a toss-up World Series.
Good pitching beats good hitting - that's the thesis for a supposed long-shot Nats World Series win. Patrick Corbin fanned a dozen Cardinals and got the win Tuesday night, although he ran out of gas after five innings.
Two points, both apparent in Game 4, should be made about these Nats - akin to noting that lightning can not only electrocute you but also knock down trees on your head.
In their past 123 games, only the Yankees have scored more runs per game. The Nats' lineup, in their current state of perfect health, is one of the deepest and most multifaceted in the majors.
Game 4's seven-run first inning epitomized the Nats' versatile attack - one that's defiantly out of step with the home-run-or-whiff model of this era. Yes, the Nats hit homers - 231, but that was only 13th best this year. Within the NL, they are first in on-base percentage, tied for first in batting average and second in fewest strikeouts. They also tied for the league lead in steals. To many, all of this is heresy. But it has worked, with a master-class example in the first inning in Game 4.
The Nats scored seven runs without hitting a ball farther than 275 feet in the air. They slapped a single (Turner) and double (Soto) to the opposite field. A power hitter (Rendon) put the first pitch he saw in play because he knew it could produce a sacrifice fly. Two players merely put the ball in play: Ryan Zimmerman sharply and Victor Robles with a popup. The Cards made an error on the first and completely missed the second as it fell between three of them. Yan Gomes and Turner followed with two-run singles drilled through the left side of the infield. Between them, Corbin put down a perfect sacrifice bunt.
It was, frankly, nothing less than baseball high art: the first 10 hitters of a game with the pennant on the line executed perfectly.
Dakota Hudson, the Cards' wins leader, left having gotten one - o-n-e - out.
The other Nats weapon that has brought them to this city-delighting pennant is depth. In World Series games played in the AL city, the Nats will be able to pick a bat off their loaded bench to be the designated hitter - perhaps switching-hitting Asdrúbal Cabrera (91 RBI), or Brian Dozier or Matt Adams (20 homers each). There might even be a spot for Parra - who got a hit, to universal delight, in Game 4.
In the glee that now sweeps over Washington, don't bet the house on the Nats against the 107-win Astros or 103-win Yanks. But it might be worth taking out a second mortgage on your gardening shed.
Whatever ills or joys are still to come, Tuesday night was the best baseball victory in the District of Columbia since 1933, another era when America seemed chest-deep in serious problems. In October 2019, Washington is united behind one flag and one purpose - symbolized by those silly Baby Shark bandannas.
The Nats are also a team for their place and time. They exalt in their diversity with eight key players, and team leaders, from Venezuela, Brazil and the Dominican Republic. Their manager, Dave Martinez, told his Latin teammates when he arrived in the minors in 1983, "Sorry, but I don't speak Spanish."
Now, of course, he does. But he has also learned a lot about another language that he struggled with when he took the job last year: He's now closer to fluent in "bullpen." He has learned at least four words - Doolittle, Hudson, Rainey and Rodney. And he used that vocabulary well in Game 4, getting a scoreless inning from Rainey in the sixth. Doolittle blanked the Cards in the seventh, and Hudson completed a scary eighth before a perfect ninth to end it.
All of these factors are part of the explanation of why the Nats' NL championship is neither magic nor fluke. It is excellent, but some of it hides in plain sight.
This, however, is also a team with a fire deep inside it that it seldom fully realizes. This is a band of old men without rings.
Only one National, reliever Hunter Strickland, has played for a World Series winner. After Game 2, Zimmerman and Max Scherzer, both 35, referred to themselves, and the 16 other Nats on this playoff roster who are past their 30th birthdays, as "Los Viejos" - the Old Men.
For Washington, it has seemed as if it took a baseball eternity to win a pennant. But to three-quarters of these Nationals, winning the NLCS may mean more than just the D.C. joyride of a visit to the World Series.
To them, grabbing a pennant, marvelous as that is for their city and its fans, is probably - though none will say it - a steppingstone to their collective dream of rings.
If you think Game 4 was hard as that 7-0 lead dwindled to 7-4, and that those comebacks in elimination games against the Milwaukee Brewers and Los Angeles Dodgers were harrowing, be forewarned. What these old men, plus a few gifted youngsters, with their dugout dancing and hugging, really have in mind, starting next Tuesday, will be even more challenging. Perhaps even impossible.
But, as we have learned, the prize that is least expected, the goal that seems almost impossible, is also the most thrilling.
Pop the corks. Raise the pennant. But know one thing: The Nationals don't think their season has reached its peak.
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