Long, winding road leads Nats back to playoffs

September 25th, 2019

WASHINGTON -- Once they had done their part, securing a 6-5 win over the Phillies, the Nationals gathered near the mound to watch their fate unfold. The video board in center field quickly switched to the final moments of the ninth inning between the Cubs and Pirates, and the Nats watched along with the 22,214 fans who remained at Nationals Park on Tuesday night, in anticipation of a celebration that had been building for weeks throughout this roller-coaster season.

The Washington Nationals are going back to the postseason. They clinched a playoff spot on Tuesday, the first Wild Card berth in franchise history, and their fifth trip to the postseason in the past eight years. To do so, they overcame a disastrous start, a bullpen that at times was even worse, injuries, questions about the future of their team and manager and so much more doubt that they would ever arrive at this point.

Once Kyle Schwarber grounded out to seal another loss for the Cubs, the Nationals were headed back to the clubhouse to begin a celebration that also seemed part cathartic.

They threw beer and champagne around the room and on each other without a care in the world. Aníbal Sánchez blew a whistle as he led a conga line around the clubhouse. They chanted “M-V-P, M-V-P” as they circled and drenched him in beer. When “Baby Shark” blared through the speakers, the oldest team in baseball worked itself into a frenzy.

“I think everybody in this clubhouse envisioned this exact thing right here,” said shortstop , whose go-ahead grand slam in the sixth inning paved the way for the victory. “We talked about it when we were 19-31, we talked about how we were going to laugh at everybody else outside of this clubhouse for everything that they said about us. And we are here now.”

Only nine teams in MLB history have come back from 12 games under .500 to make the postseason, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, and the 2019 Nationals are one of them.

It’s remarkable considering where they were on May 23, an unequivocal mess 50 games into the season. They were the biggest disappointment in baseball after being swept out of Citi Field by the Mets in four games. The summer in D.C. seemed like it would carry more questions than answers. Speculation swirled about the fate of their stars (Could they trade Rendon? Would they consider moving Max Scherzer?), and manager Dave Martinez’s job status seemed tenuous.

“It would’ve been way too easy for us to just pack it in and call it a season in May,” Stephen Strasburg said. “But we're not those type of guys in here.”

And then, somewhat remarkably, the Nationals just started winning. And they kept on winning. And winning. For three months, they were the best team in baseball, rattling off the best 80-game stretch in club history (54-26) to climb out of that early hole and position themselves for the postseason.

“Because we're good,” Scherzer said. “We're good. We're a good freakin' team. And we can play with anybody in this league.”

The Nats do not know their opponent or the location for the National League Wild Card Game just yet, but it will almost certainly be the Brewers, who reduced their own magic number to one Tuesday night. Washington currently owns a one-game advantage over Milwaukee for the top Wild Card slot and the right to host that winner-take-all game.

This is a route Washington has never traveled to reach the postseason. The Nats won the NL East in each of their previous four trips to October, but the slow start doomed their chances to ever really threaten the Braves for the division title this season.

Now that the Nationals are officially headed back to October, they are poised to be one of the most dangerous teams in the field, as long as they can win the NL Wild Card Game and reach the NL Division Series. They have overcome adversity at every turn, played nearly flawless ball for months to even get here. And now they are in, with a pitching staff of Scherzer, Strasburg and Patrick Corbin, and a lineup stuffed with Rendon, Turner and Juan Soto.

“We talked earlier about baseball, how difficult it is to make the postseason,” Sean Doolittle said. “And over a long season with everything that we went through as a group, I don't know, it feels so much sweeter. The last time we did this when I was traded here in ’17. I think we did it in the first week of September. But this -- I don’t know, this feels so much better after everything that we've been through.”