Nationals hit bottom in May, but never gave up

Resilient crew was 19-31, and has 'played playoff baseball' since

October 18th, 2019

WASHINGTON -- Here’s the secret about May 24, the day the Nationals changed the course of a season that ultimately saw them win the National League pennant on Tuesday night: Nothing suddenly flipped. There wasn’t a magic meeting or moment or pep talk that inspired the turnaround to a 2019 campaign that seemed fated to a lackluster end after the Nats’ first 50 games (although they did play the Marlins in Game 51). Looking back, they say the change in fortune is really simple to explain.

“Because we’re a good baseball team,” said.

In fact, the more important date in Washington’s season is probably one week earlier, May 17, the day Trea Turner came back from the injured list. It put this Nationals roster, this good baseball team, back at full strength after their lineup had been depleted by injuries and their bullpen had torpedoed any hopes of a strong start. It took until May 24, however, for the Nationals to reach their lowest record mark, but from that date on they have been on a tear. They matched the Dodgers and trailed only the Astros -- by measures like third-order winning percentage, two of the best teams in MLB history -- for the best records in baseball from that point on.

Yet, even when the Nationals stood at 19-31, there was no panic. Especially not from manager Dave Martinez, despite speculation surrounding his job status. That seems so long ago now, although managing principal owner Mark Lerner said on Tuesday that he never considered making a change. But Lerner acknowledges he never saw this degree of change coming, either -- a winning season had once seemed unlikely. And the team’s first World Series appearance? Unthinkable.

Throughout it all, the Nationals’ players and coaches expressed that same confidence as Scherzer. There was too much talent in the room not to. But it takes a good team, maybe even a special one, to weather such a severe storm. Only nine teams in MLB history have come back from 12 games under .500 to reach the postseason, and now four of them -- the 1914 Miracle Braves, ’73 Mets, 2005 Astros and these Nationals -- have reached the World Series.

“I don’t know that a young ballclub comes back from a 19-31 start,” Nationals reliever said. “I don’t know that it happens. You need guys like [], you need guys that have been around for a long time that have been through the wringer of losing seasons and winning seasons. ...

“Those guys come in every day like it’s a clean slate. I think it helps guys like [Juan] Soto and [Victor] Robles, those guys. [For them, it’s] like, 'Oh, I don’t remember yesterday because Zim doesn’t remember yesterday.' You need those [veteran] guys, man. I think this team proves it. Hopefully, a lot of people around baseball see that.”

It’s impossible to measure exactly how much impact it had, but the Nationals wore their title as the oldest team in baseball -- they have started calling themselves the “viejos,” the Spanish word for old -- like a badge of honor during the celebration on Tuesday night. They point to their experience as a major reason why they knew they were capable of a turnaround.

They arrived in the postseason having already passed a huge test. Maybe they knew they were playing with house money, having salvaged a season that had once appeared on the brink -- does an elimination game in October shake the faith of a team that might have felt like its season was almost over in May?

“After May 24, we played playoff baseball throughout the rest of the year,” Martinez said.

Washington finished the regular season on an eight-game winning streak. Dating back to the start of that run, they’ve gone 16-2, sprinting through these playoffs and into the Fall Classic, and shedding the weight of the franchise’s past postseason failures.

“I feel like we got that monkey off our back when we got the Wild Card Game,” Scherzer said. “Just the way we came back and showed some resiliency.”

And that may be the best way to sum up the 2019 Nationals, by the trait they’ve been revealing about themselves from May 24 on -- now, this resilient group is going to the World Series.