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Story of the decade? Try the ‘19 Nats

December 2, 2019

The baseball offseason is poised to heat up again next week in San Diego with the Winter Meetings. So next year, and the next decade in baseball, really begins there, with the possibility of big free-agent signings and trades, two months before pitchers and catchers report to Florida and Arizona

The baseball offseason is poised to heat up again next week in San Diego with the Winter Meetings. So next year, and the next decade in baseball, really begins there, with the possibility of big free-agent signings and trades, two months before pitchers and catchers report to Florida and Arizona for Sporing Training. Maybe we will start to get an idea where Anthony Rendon might play in 2020, and Stephen Strasburg, and Gerrit Cole, who might make more money as a free agent than any starting pitcher ever has.

This all plays out a little over a month from when last season, and the last decade, ended with a tremendous World Series, won by the Washington Nationals in seven games after they trailed the Astros three games to two, and with the series returning to Minute Maid Park.

So before we do turn the page, and before baseball does start making Hot Stove headlines, it is worth noting again that nobody had a better October in the past decade, not even the Cubs, than the Nationals did, starting with their National League Wild Card Game win against the Brewers. Think of them as the Cubs without more than a century of waiting.

Fact is, nobody ever had a better October in any decade.

Oh, the Cubs were a great October story in 2016, of course, coming back from a three games to one deficit to beat the Indians in the Series. They played three elimination games that year. The Nationals played five this year, four on the road. Maybe it was a good thing, because there were three times at Nationals Park, in 2012 and ’16 and ’17 when the Nats lost Game 5 of a Division Series. Coming into October of this year, the Nats had never won a postseason series of any kind. A big fat “O” for October.

And the context of just what an immense baseball story they became actually began long before they got to the postseason, back when they were 12 games under .500, at 19-31, after a third of the regular season had been played on May 23. There was a lot of talk then about how Mike Rizzo, a great baseball man who runs the Nationals and has for a long time, might be a seller instead of a buyer at the Trade Deadline. Rizzo was not. He rebuilt his bullpen, one of the worst in the Majors early on in the 2019 season. His team showed that it could win without Bryce Harper. From the time the Nationals were 19-31, their record was 74-38. The Astros, who would end up winning 108 games, were 75-37 during that stretch.

The Nats began to believe if they could come back from being 12 under .500 to get a Wild Card berth, they could do anything. And then anything is exactly what they did. The Giants won three World Series in the past decade. The Royals won their first in 30 years. The Cubs ended all the waiting on the North Side of Chicago. The Nationals were as much a story for the ages in baseball as any of them.

Washington fell behind Milwaukee, 3-0, in the NL Wild Card game. Did not go ahead of the Brewers until Juan Soto’s RBI single in the eighth inning. All it won them was a Division Series matchup against the Dodgers, who’d won 106 games during the regular season. The Nationals fell behind the Dodgers two games to one. The Dodgers got ahead 1-0 on the Nationals in Game 4. Another elimination game. The Nats came back. Max Scherzer, who would end up being the Game 7 starter in the Series, pitched seven brilliant innnings, four hits, one run, seven strikeouts.

The Nationals were in another Game 5, having never won one before. Then they were behind again. The Dodgers had them 3-0 at Dodger Stadium in the second inning. It was 3-1 in the eighth and then, in a blink, it all changed, the series and the season. Rendon and Soto hit back-to-back home runs off Clayton Kershaw. Game tied. An old baseball club fighter named Howie Kendrick hit a grand slam home run in the 10th. The Nationals were finally going to the World Series.

“Personally I needed to get here,” Rizzo said when it was all over. “And I needed to win the World Series.”

The Nationals won the World Series. They won it after getting behind the Astros again. They won it because Strasburg, in the fourth elimination game, went out and had the night of his life in Game 6, shutting down the Astros, at Minute Maid Park, all the way into the ninth inning. Then came Game 7 (the fifth World Series Game 7 of the decade). The Nationals trailed the Astros again. This time it was 2-0 into the seventh. Then Rendon hit a home run off Zack Greinke and, just like that, the night changed. One last comeback for the ’19 Nationals, this time to win the Series, the first time it had happened for a team in Washington, D.C., since 1924. There’s all kinds of waiting in baseball.

Say it again: There have been a lot of great October stories, the Giants in ’51 and the Dodgers in ’55 finally getting past the Yankees, the Mets in ’69 and the Red Sox in ’04 and the Cubbies three years ago. Never one better than the Nationals. Before we start looking ahead, let’s look back at them one more time:

Twelve games under .500 on May 23. Five elimination games in the postseason, behind in every one of them. They weren’t just legends of this fall. Any fall.