Since there’s not much news about the Giants this week other than managerial rumors–and Greek Giant already covered that topic–I thought I’d riff a bit on the surprise story of the 2019 postseason–the NL Champion Washington Nationals. I’ve never been a fan or hater of the Nats in particular (though if I recall correctly, Ryan’s been trying to get us on board with “Natitude” since 2012 or so), but this year they’ve caught my imagination, and now I’m all in. I felt this way about the Mets in 2015 and Cleveland in 2016, too–something about those teams just grabbed my attention.
Since the Dodgers went all the way to the World Series in the previous two seasons, my entire postseason energy was taken up with rooting against them. Now, after a shockingly early exit for those 106-win not-so-lovable losers, I have to pick a new narrative. The Astros just won it all a couple of years ago, and I could never root for the Yankees, so…all in for the Washington Nationals.
Here are some reasons why they’ve captured my rooting loyalty (for the next week or so).
Their tragic recent history
From 2012-19, only one team (I forget which one) has won more regular season games than the Nationals have. Beginning in 2012, they’ve never had a losing record and have won four NL East titles and one wild card spot. In all four of the years when they won the NL East, they got knocked out of the playoffs in the first round. Three of those four division series went five games and ended in brutal losses in front of their home fans. They had home field advantage each time and, as the top seed in the league, twice played the wild card winner (Cardinals in 2012 and Giants in 2014) in the first round. Yet, despite being the best team or at worst the second-best team in the league all four times, they never saw the NLCS once–until this year.
Of all of those heartbreaking losses, the 2012 NLDS had to be the worst. As the top seed with 98 wins, the Nats were heavily favored over the Cardinals, the first-ever winners of the NL wild card game. But the Cardinals were gritty defending World Series champions, and the Nats found themselves down 1-2 in the series. They won a nail-biter in Game 4 with a walk-off homer by Jayson Werth. (That was the weird year when the division series were scheduled 2-3 with the lower seed opening at home. Same with the Giants facing Cincinnati that October.) But in Game 5 the Nats had a 6-0 lead by the end of the third inning–and their horrified fans watched as they slowly gave up all of it, culminating with four runs in the top of the ninth allowed by closer Drew Storen (who would factor again as a villain in the NLDS in 2014).
That particular series was especially galling because the Nats had made the decision before the playoffs to shut down their ace, Stephen Strasburg, to limit his innings in his first full season back after Tommy John surgery. They likely would have won that first-round series if they could have pitched (a perfectly healthy) Strasburg twice. When they lost the series, the attitude was “Well, we’ll be back next year and the year after that…” Some even commented that the baseball gods punished them for hubris. That was the Nationals’ year, and they threw it away with presumptions about the future.
As it turned out, the Nats were kind of right. They were back, many times, in the subsequent years, and now Strasburg is a very rich postseason stud. But until this season, they never got past that first-round hump, and over time it became took on a life of its own, kind of like Clayton Kershaw in October. Dusty Baker, the Nats’ third of four managers during this winning run, was fired after two first-round losses, despite his team winning 95 and 97 games in the two years of his tenure. The narrative was so far gone that when the Nats won the wild card game this year, some said “Look! The Nats finally got past the ‘first round’!”
So after all of that frustration and disappointment, it’s easy to let your heart go out to those fans and enjoy their excitement right now.
Their gutsy performance this October
The Nats snuck up on people. In the previous seven years, they’d either won the NL East or missed the playoffs entirely. This was the first time they got to the tournament via a wild card berth, and generally speaking, wild card teams get sneered at (“If you’re so good, win your division!”) and dismissed before the playoffs even start. At the end of May, the Nats were 24-33 (.421).
Then they caught fire, going 69-36 the rest of way, a .658 winning percentage. They were the hottest team in baseball for two-thirds of the season, but no one paid much attention because their slow start put them in such a deep hole in the East that they never had a real chance to catch the Braves.
Turns out people should have paid more attention. The Nats have a ridiculous rotation, an MVP candidate in Anthony Rendon, and arguably the best young player in the game in Juan Soto. People saw their bad bullpen (and it was bad) and assumed that they were headed for an early October exit.
And indeed it looked like more postseason disappointment was on the way. They trailed late in the wild card game before an improbable eighth-inning rally stunned the Brewers. Then they trailed the heavily favored 106-win Dodgers 1-2 in the NLDS before winning Game 4 behind Max Scherzer. And then, back in LA, trailing by two runs with six outs to go, well…Kershaw happened, or rather, Rendon and Soto happened. And then Joe Kelly happened and Howie Kendrick happened.
Meanwhile, coming full circle from 2012, the Cardinals had also upset the favored Atlanta Braves in their NLDS, culminating with a shocking ten-run first inning in Game 5. They swaggered into the NLCS inspired by the braggadocio of their manager, Mike Shildt.
Mike Shildt with the greatest postgame speech ever pic.twitter.com/LH65D2dTLp
— Baseball Bros (@BaseballBros) October 10, 2019
“I don’t give a f*** who we play. We’re gonna f*** them up, we’re gonna f***ing take it right to them…”
That little speech fired the Cardinals up so much that they came out and…almost got no-hit in the first two games of the NLCS…scored a grand total of six runs in four games…never had a lead once in the entire four-game series.
— St. Louis Cardinals (@Cardinals) October 16, 2019
I’m not sure the Cardinals’ social media intern knows what the expression “hard-fought” actually means.
Anyway, no matter. After squeaking through the wild card game and the NLCS, the Nats stomped their way through the NLCS and now must twiddle their thumbs to see if they’re flying to Houston or New York for the first two games of the World Series.
I agree with Jayson Stark in the Athletic that no, the Nats didn’t finally break through in the postseason because Bryce Harper signed with the Phillies (“addition by subtraction”). However, perhaps not having Harper in the middle of the order and as the constant focus of attention forced the Nats to dig deeper as a team this time.
Old guys rule, week 2
Our Giants opened the season with the oldest roster in MLB, but they didn’t even finish in the top six by the end of the season.
The oldest teams in MLB, by average age:
1. Nationals (31.1) – Made WS
2. Yankees (30.0) – ALCS
3. Braves (29.7) – Won NL East
4. Astros (29.4) – ALCS
5. Dodgers (29.0) – 106 wins
6. Cards (28.8) – Won NL Central
But yeah, aim for those cheap young guys. Right, savvy MLB execs?
— Matt Weyrich (@MattWeyrichFBB) October 16, 2019
As I mentioned in last week’s post, I’m enjoying the contributions of many 35+-year old players this October (Verlander, Scherzer, Zimmerman, Anibal Sanchez, Wainwright), but none more than the unlikely star turn of journeyman/postseason hero Howie Kendrick, now “NLCS MVP Howie Kendrick,” thank you very much.
This October is turning a lot of recent baseball truisms right on their head. “It’s a young man’s game.” “No one wants to hire any player over 30 anymore.” Turns out there’s still a place for both the baseball IQ and the steady nerves that can only come from wisdom and experience, from the “ten thousand hours of practice” that Malcolm Gladwell (famous Yankee fan) said in his book Outliers was required to become truly expert at anything.
They remind me of the Giants
Now we get to the title of this post and why the Nationals (and the Mets and Indians before them) have at least temporarily captured my heart, even despite the presence of one of my least favorite ex-Giants on their team (and no, I’m not talking about #ForeverGiant Gerardo Parra). Here are some parallels that struck me:
- the critical Brewers’ error that led to the Nats’ wild card win? –anyone remember Brooks Conrad in Game 3 of the 2010 NLCS?
- the Dodgers’ late-game meltdown in Game 5 of the NLCS?–Game 2 of the 2014 NLDS in…Nationals Park
- the grand slam by Howie Kendrick that crushed and silenced a home crowd?–We have TWO of those: Buster Posey in Game 5 of the 2012 NLDS and Brandon Crawford in the 2014 wild card game
- the unlikely over-35 heroes (Sanchez, Kendrick)?–2010 Edgar Renteria, 2012 Marco Scutaro and 2012 Ryan Vogelsong, 2014 Jeremy Affeldt
- the MVP candidate who led the way (Rendon)?–2012 Buster Posey
- the comebacks while on the verge of elimination?–2012 (too many to list), 2014 NLDS Game 3, 2016 NLDS Game 3
- finally breaking through after years of disappointment?–the 2002 Giants (first wild card team to go to the World Series, along with the Angels, after quick exits in 1997 and 2000) and the 2010-12-14 World Series Champion Giants
Thinking about these, you realize it’s a combination of luck (e.g., errors, broken-bat bloops like Zimmerman’s in the wild card game), failure (by the other team, especially late-game pitchers), and inspiring performances (Kendrick, Sanchez, and others) that comprise the secret sauce creating a captivating postseason team.
Whoever wins the ALCS, the Nationals will be the underdog in the World Series again, without home field advantage and without the 105+-win resumes of the Astros or Yankees. No matter. They’ve already been there and prevailed. Bet against them at your peril because they’ve got Giant Natitude. Lefty out.