Trust, perseverance at crux of Nats' 2019 run

October 25th, 2019

The Nationals are two victories away from winning their first World Series. And maybe, because of the way things are going, they are two away from rolling through everybody the way the Red Sox did in 2004, when they won their final eight games after falling into an 0-3 hole in the American League Championship Series against the Yankees. Three years later, Boston won its final seven games after being down, 3-1, to Cleveland in the ALCS. Maybe Stephen Strasburg was right the other day; he talked about how you can run into a buzz saw at this time of year, and that maybe his team is the buzz saw right now.

Whatever happens from here, the 2019 Nationals are already one of the great comeback stories in baseball. They didn’t give up on their season when they were 19-31 on May 23. Their manager, Dave Martinez, didn’t give up, and neither did their general manager, Mike Rizzo. All season, the baseball world has commended the job Brian Cashman did with the Yankees, and how he and his team had the personnel to win 103 games and the AL East Division with 30 players on the injured list. But Cashman didn’t do a better job than Rizzo, who lost Bryce Harper and didn’t throw in the towel when his team looked to be gone after a third of the season.

The Nationals came back from being 12 games under .500, and they earned a National League Wild Card berth. They came back from being down, 3-0, to the Brewers in the NL Wild Card Game. They came back from being down, 2-1, to the Dodgers in the NL Division Series -- and even down, 3-0, in Game 5. Now Washington has won its past eight games, and the team has at least a chance to make it 10 in a row at home this weekend.

“The Nationals are just the latest team to remind everybody how long our season is,” former Major League skipper Buck Showalter said. “But they’re about more than that. They’ve got really good people in charge, starting with Mike, who didn’t panic when he had the chance. He trusted himself and trusted his guys.”

Trust like that doesn’t always filter down from the top in sports, but sometimes it does. Rizzo didn’t give up after Harper opted for a bigger contract with Philadelphia. He didn't give up on his team when there was talk that he might be a seller at the Trade Deadline. And now he has watched as his team has claimed a 2-0 advantage over the Astros in the World Series, on the road, after not giving up against the Brewers or Dodgers. Washington played three win-or-go-home games against Milwaukee and Los Angeles, and it won them all. Now it is the Astros who have to act like the Nats and attempt to rise up after being knocked down.

“This group is used to grinding from behind and battling from behind,” Rizzo said after his team beat the Brewers.

Since May 23, the grinding and battling have become a part of the Nationals' character and DNA. Just by being where they are, the Nats will become a frame of reference for a team that sees itself as a contender coming out of Spring Training, but then has its the wheels come off, the way they did for Washington in March, April and May. As much as any of his players, Rizzo stayed strong.

When you look at all the transactions at the Trade Deadline -- by which time it had become quite clear that the Nationals were still in play, not just for an NL Wild Card berth but also to take a run at the division-rival Braves -- maybe none has turned out to be more significant than the trade Rizzo made with the Blue Jays for 32-year-old reliever Daniel Hudson, who has been as important to the Nats as they’ve made their run as any of their stars. That refers to Strasburg, Max Scherzer, Patrick Corbin, Juan Soto, Anthony Rendon or even Howie Kendrick, who made one of the three big swings at the end of Game 5 against the Dodgers -- a grand slam in extra innings after Soto and Rendon had gone deep against Clayton Kershaw to tie it -- that kept the October line moving for Washington.

Rizzo made tough decisions, too, dismissing pitching coach Derek Lilliquist in May and replacing him with Paul Menhart. Along the way, the Nationals discovered something about their team: Maybe the guy they lost, Harper, was only their third-best position player, after Soto and Rendon.

Now here they are. Nobody is suggesting the World Series is over. Others have lost the first two games at home and come back -- the 1996 Yankees immediately come to mind, and the Astros could do the same. But suddenly, a team that won 107 regular-season games is the underdog that the Nationals were when they were 12 games back. They didn’t quit. Rizzo didn’t quit on them or start planning for next year, either. Instead, next year became this year for the Nats.