WASHINGTON -- After missing the postseason a year ago, the Nationals are back in the National League Division Series for the fifth time in team history, even if the path to get here was far less traveled. This time, they rallied from a sluggish start, tore through the NL for months and then stunned the Brewers in the Wild Card Game, setting up a date with the Dodgers starting Thursday night.
Before the start of the NLDS, here’s how the Nationals got here, from a sluggish 19-31 to the eve of another playoff series in Los Angeles.
Perhaps what Nationals manager Dave Martinez deserves most credit for is that he did not make any major changes. Not when the team was the biggest disappointment in baseball, at 12 games under .500 near the end of May, and destined for a winter of change. He remained the same every day and did not do anything drastic to save his job, or panic to try and turn the season around. Instead, he trusted a talented roster to play to its talent level. And once the Nats got healthy, they took off. The lineup and starting rotation are led by the same cast they expected at the start of the year. The bullpen has been more unstable, with the Nats rotating through relievers trying to find someone they can trust -- although Martinez has shown flexibility in what roles he uses for each reliever depending on their effectiveness.
Key transaction: Daniel Hudson
It’s no secret the Nationals bullpen was a mess to start the season and in some ways, still is, but give the Nats and general manger Mike Rizzo credit for revamping their bullpen on the fly. After Fernando Rodney was designated for assignment by the A’s earlier this season, the Nats scooped him up and he posted a 114 ERA+ in 38 appearances while becoming one of Martinez’s most trusted relievers. Combine his contributions with Hudson, who was acquired from the Blue Jays at the Trade Deadline and has become one of the anchors at the backend of their bullpen, along with Sean Doolittle. In 24 games with the Nats, Hudson put up a 1.44 ERA with 23 strikeouts and four walks in 25 innings.
Breakout player: Howie Kendrick
Kendrick admits feeling fortunate that he had another year on his contract in Washington after tearing his right Achilles a year ago. Otherwise, surrounded with uncertainty, he’s not sure he would have found a job entering his age 36 season. And now its difficult to imagine where the Nationals would be without him.
Kendrick put up one of the best offensive seasons of his career, batting .344/.395/.572 with 17 homers in 370 plate appearances and 2.6 Wins Above Replacement -- value almost all accumulated with his bat. In order to keep him healthy and fresh, the Nats resisted the urge to start him every day during the regular season, but rode him more frequently down the stretch. He started at first base during the NL Wild Card Game and is almost certain to find his way into the middle of the lineup either at first or second base.
Calling card: Starting pitching
This is a team built on starting pitching and if the Nationals are going to make a deep postseason run, it will come on the backs of their starting rotation. They possess three starters who will garner attention for the NL Cy Young Award in Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin and plan on riding them through October, a bit of a throwback compared to the approach of most teams in 2019.
“The reason why we are here,” Martinez said Wednesday, “is our starting pitchers kept us afloat."