Nats sweep Cards to clinch 1st World Series trip

Washington leans on rotation arms to reach 'a beautiful place'

October 18th, 2019

WASHINGTON -- Maybe it had to be this way, a reminder of the road they traveled.

That first playoff series seven years ago came against the Cardinals, a crushing loss in Game 5 that in retrospect foreshadowed what October would be like for years to come in D.C. All the heartbreak. All the disappointment. All the unfulfilled expectations left throughout this journey. So maybe it was appropriate for the Nationals to officially eradicate those postseason demons this way, catching the breaks other teams always caught against them, and then punishing and pulverizing the Cardinals in cathartic fashion.

The Washington Nationals are going to the World Series. Picture saying that on May 24, or at the start of the eighth inning of the NL Wild Card Game, or after falling behind two games to one in the NL Division Series to a 106-win Dodgers team, or in the eighth inning of Game 5 of that same NLDS. But it’s true. The Nationals swept the Cardinals out of the NL Championship Series, clinching the first trip to the World Series in franchise history with an emphatic 7-4 victory on Tuesday night at Nationals Park.

"I can’t put this moment in words," manager Dave Martinez said. "I can say this: Often, bumpy roads lead to beautiful places, and this is a beautiful place."

The Nationals scored first in every game in the series and never trailed. They overwhelmed the Cardinals, bullied them with their star rotation and punished each miscue relentlessly.

On Tuesday night, they weren’t going to give the Cardinals a chance to get off the mat. needed 10 pitches to strike out the side in the top of the first. The offense batted around and scored seven runs in the bottom of the first. St. Louis chipped away at the deficit to pull to within striking distance, even loading the bases in the eighth, but shut the door with a four-out save. And then the party began at South Capitol Street.

“There were other times, couldn’t get over the hump or whatever it was, but really it’s kind of tough to say what’s going to happen in the playoffs,” right-hander said. “You have a great year and you kind of run into a buzzsaw, but maybe this year we’re the buzzsaw.”

The sold-out crowd of 43,976 fans erupted with each out recorded, counting down until they could call their team the National League champions for the first time. The World Series is coming to D.C. for the first time since 1933. Eighty-six years have passed since then, two teams have left and another arrived, before the Nats transformed from also-ran into perennial contender.

“I took the October heartbreaks as a step in the right direction,” said first baseman , who has been active for every season in Nationals history. “We had some times here where we knew on April 1 we weren’t going to make the playoffs. We came a long way. And sometimes you’ve got to learn from failure and go through some bad times to get to some good times.”

The Nationals have enjoyed these locker-room celebrations a few times now, but even though “wet is wet,” as Martinez joked, he admitted each one gets better. They played the usual hits, Sean Doolittle brought out a lightsaber. Brian Dozier and Yan Gomes lost their shirts. Gerardo Parra danced merengue with Martinez and Strasburg. And they drank from the NL championship trophy, which Martinez carried into a local establishment at the end of the night.

These Nationals are going to the World Series. Really. This team. The one that won 93 games, the fewest of their five playoff teams. They’re going to the World Series the year they lost Bryce Harper. The Nationals brought the oldest team in baseball to the dance and a bullpen with one of the worst ERAs in postseason history, and they’re going to the World Series anyway.

“It’s hard to win in the playoffs,” Zimmerman said. “Everyone just assumes: You won 97 games, you’re just going to go ahead and win in the playoffs. You’ve got to get some lucky breaks. And more importantly, you’ve got to take advantage of those lucky breaks. This year we definitely got some lucky breaks. But we got some huge hits with two outs. We made our own luck.”

The Nationals did not begin this month as the favorite to win the NL, but they are no miracle. Once they got healthy they were one of the best teams in baseball. After May 24, the day they hit their lowest point, they were tied with the Dodgers for the second-best record in baseball, behind only the Astros.

Washington rode the arms of a stellar starting rotation -- the four-headed monster of Max Scherzer, Strasburg, Corbin and Aníbal Sánchez -- who imposed their will on the Cardinals for the entire NLCS and rendered their sometimes leaky bullpen an afterthought. Anthony Rendon is an NL MVP Award candidate. Juan Soto is a star who turns 21 on the night of Game 3 of the World Series. They are two of the best and most dangerous hitters in baseball. Trea Turner and Victor Robles are two of the most electric players. Howie Kendrick, the NLCS MVP, has been a breakout star at 36.

“I think once you start naming guys that stepped up in different ways, you’ll end up naming everybody on the team,” Doolittle said. “We got so many contributions from different guys who had to embrace new roles. There are so many examples of that up and down this team.”

The Nationals will almost certainly not be the favorite over the American League champion, either the Astros or Yankees, when the World Series begins next Tuesday in the AL city, but count out Washington at your own risk.

After all, this team nearly buried itself after 50 games, but it rallied. This team stared down a 3-1 deficit in the eighth inning of the Wild Card Game with baseball’s most unhittable reliever, Josh Hader, on the mound and rallied. And then the Nats were down 3-1 in the eighth inning of a winner-take-all Game 5 at Dodger Stadium facing Clayton Kershaw, the best pitcher of his generation, and they still survived.

“Because baseball is such a cruel sport sometimes,” Scherzer said. “We played some really good games against some really good teams and we laid it on the line. Those past teams have been really good and we've come up just an inch short so many times. I've been a part of that and been on the losing end, and it's just a gut punch every single time. When we can finally do it, and the way we handled business against the Brewers and the Dodgers and the Cardinals, I mean, just great, great ballclubs in the National League to finally punch through, man, it's just an ultimate feeling that you just can't describe.”