You see those Baby Sharks in the Washington Nationals dugout? How about 40,000 fans screaming their lungs out and mimicking shark bites with their arms?
Don’t laugh. This stuff matters, too. Much of what the Washington Nationals are doing can be quantified, though. That is, the front three of their rotation is as good as any. So are the top six or seven spots in the batting order. Even the bullpen, the thing that threatened to burn down the house for most of the regular season, has emerged as a reliable part of the equation.
In short, this is why the Nationals may very well be the best team in baseball at the moment. This does not mean they will be favored to win the World Series. The Astros are deep and talented as well.
But there’s something else about these Nationals. From a 19-31 start that tugged at every organizational thread, the Nationals have emerged better and stronger. Now, after an 82-40 run to the World Series, only a fool would bet against them.
Beyond the things that can be measured are the things that can’t. Like Baby Sharks. Thanks for that, Gerardo Parra. Years from now, the history books may not fully record how important your contribution was, because it simply can’t be measured in the traditional ways.
Ah, the traditional ways.
The Nationals are plenty good there too, and they’re playing their best baseball (obviously) at the most important time of the year. They’ll enter the World Series having won 16 of 18, so let’s first recap the biggest moments on this magical ride:
NLCS Game 1
Aníbal Sánchez Washington’s No. 4 starter, pitches 7 1/3 shutout innings as the Nationals stun the Cardinals 2-0 in St. Louis. That sets a tone for everything that follows. The Nationals go on to hold the Cardinals to just three runs in the first 31 innings of the series, never allowing St. Louis to hold a lead. Rendon hits .417 during the series.
And now, let’s count the ways this team has been transformed along the journey.
1) Pitching, pitching, pitching
The Nationals’ rotation has been baseball’s best this postseason, with a 2.04 ERA. What has changed is that after all the comings and goings, the Nationals have found a bullpen mix that works. Scherzer, Strasburg and Patrick Corbin all pitched in relief during the Division Series, but during the NLCS, the Nationals’ bullpen had a 0.90 ERA as Hudson, Sean Doolittle and Tanner Rainey have established themselves as late-inning rocks.
2) Rendon and Scherzer, superstars
Rendon has built on an MVP-caliber regular season with a 1.059 OPS in 10 postseason games. In 43 plate appearances, he has 12 hits, eight walks and seven RBIs. As for Scherzer, he started four games during July and August and had a 5.16 ERA in five September appearances, leading some to wonder how much he would contribute in October. He has answered all those questions by allowing one earned run and striking out 18 over 14 innings in his last two postseason starts.
3) Strasburg, fulfilling the promise
This postseason has become his moment. Strasburg has a 1.64 ERA in three starts and one relief appearance this postseason. His three shutout innings of relief in the NL Wild Card Game allowed the Nationals to rally from a 3-0 deficit to win 4-3 and advance in the postseason for the first time. Strasburg’s six innings of one-run, 10-strikeout ball on two days’ rest in Game 2 of the Division Series was the very definition of big-time.
4) RHP Daniel Hudson
From being released by the Angels in Spring Training to being traded from the Blue Jays to the Nationals in July, Hudson has transformed Washington’s bullpen from baseball’s worst to one that may be good enough to win a World Series. Since allowing three unearned runs on Sept. 3, he has gone 14 consecutive scoreless appearances covering 15 2/3 innings. He has teamed with Doolittle and Rainey to give the Nationals three reliable arms at the back of the bullpen.
Perhaps the smartest thing general manager Mike Rizzo did was sprinkle veteran leadership around his clubhouse: Kendrick, Sánchez, Zimmerman, Kurt Suzuki, Yan Gomes, Scherzer and others. The impact of their clubhouse presence is unquantifiable, but when a team holds things together after a 19-31 start, these players are a large piece of the puzzle.
6) SS Trea Turner
He’s hitting .286/.333/.429 with one home run and four doubles in the playoffs. He’s making every play at shortstop, running the bases aggressively and playing with a fearlessness that has come to symbolize so much about this team.
7) Dave Martinez, manager
Similar to his mentor, Joe Maddon, Martinez’s strength is that he’s relentlessly positive. His players knew he had their backs. Whatever frustrations he had remained behind closed doors, and his players responded to it. He deserves a huge amount of credit for this trip to the World Series.