Once on the Precipice of Breaking Up, Nats Bond to Win World Series Their WayOctober 31, 2019
HOUSTON — First in war, first in peace and, for the first time since the Roaring '20s, by gosh, first in Major League Baseball.
Elect them. The Washington Nationals seized the World Series in a way nobody ever has, polishing off the Houston Astros with one last comeback, a 6-2 Game 7 shocker, completing one of the most monumental diamond stories ever told.
At the end, it was almost too much for words. As the Nationals filled the stage for the trophy presentation in the minutes after Daniel Hudson fanned Houston's Michael Brantley for the final out, Max Scherzer wept uncontrollably.
He paced the stage like a caged lion. He moved from teammate to teammate, delivering hard hugs and heartfelt huzzahs. He searched the crowd at the foot of the stage for loved ones. He searched the stands for kindred spirits.
When he reached hitting coach Kevin Long, the hug seemed like it would last for minutes.
"This guy lives, breathes and dies with this team," Long said. "He goes around saying, 'This is the greatest team.' With him, it's team, team, team. We, we, we.
"This means the world to him. I was a little worried about him keeping his emotions in check tonight."
Unable to pitch three days ago because of severe spasms in his neck and trapezius, Scherzer started and delivered five solid innings, surrendering two runs on seven hits. What his evening lacked in elegance it more than made up for in sheer willpower. He did everything he could to keep his team in the game until, once again, lightning struck for the Nationals late as they scored all six runs in the last three innings to wipe out Houston's 2-0 lead.
Each of his 103 pitches (58 strikes) seemed as if a spent builder was grimacing to lay one more heavy brick in place after a summer of overwork.
"Listen, two days ago I saw him on the training table," Long said. "I didn't know what happened. I thought he had surgery. He told me, 'Listen, buddy, I'm sorry. I can't make it [to start Game 5].'"
The story, already ripe for World Series lore, locks into place with this Nationals title, a legend that surely will grow and grow as the decades pass.
"He was sent to the morgue three days ago," Nats outfielder Adam Eaton quipped. "The defibrillator revived him, and when he came out, what he did was tremendous."
What they did together was even greater.
Team, team, team. We, we, we.
In delivering the first World Series title to the District of Columbia since 1924, these Nationals went 5-0 in elimination games...after trailing in every single one of them. They became the first team ever to win four road games in a single MLB postseason series.
At 19-31 on May 24, they became the ninth team ever to come back from 12 games under .500 to make the postseason and, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, their 93 regular-season wins were the most for a team that was 12 under at any point in the season since the 1914 Boston Braves.
They rode the bats of Anthony Rendon and Howie Kendrick, World Series Most Valuable Player Stephen Strasburg's moxie, Juan Soto's youthful vigor and a powerful force of nature that started somewhere back around Memorial Day and swirled and swirled until it grew strong enough to blow away everything in its path.
"What we went through early in the season did so much for our chemistry," reliever Sean Doolittle said. "I was getting traded. Tony [Rendon] was getting traded. One article said Max had asked to be traded. Davey [Martinez, Nationals manager] was on the hot seat.
"As a group, we talked about what a missed opportunity this would be with the names in this locker room. How if we couldn't right the ship, guys would be wondering 'what if' for the rest of their careers."
Together, they felt both the frustration and the pressure. Martinez seemed as if he might be relieved of his duties any day.
"Listen, this guy was on the firing line," Long said. "Hell, we all were. They could have fired me. They did fire Derek [Lilliquist, the pitching coach]. I feel bad for Lilliquist.
"It was very emotional for all of us."
Andrew Johnson, the 17th president of the United States, once described Washington, D.C., as "12 square miles bordered by reality." That also serves as an apropos baseball description of the District for the past century.
It is a funky, disjointed hardball history: The Washington Senators played in the American League from 1901 to 1960...and then moved and became the Minnesota Twins.
Immediately, in 1961, the AL awarded two expansion franchises: a new edition of the Washington Senators and the Los Angeles Angels. Those Senators played in D.C. from 1961 to 1971...and then moved to Arlington to become the Texas Rangers.
From 1972 to 2004, there was no baseball in D.C. It didn't return until MLB moved the Montreal Expos there in 2005, when they became the Nationals. Though then-President George W. Bush was on hand to throw out the first pitch at their first home game that April at decrepit RFK Stadium (where they played until Nationals Park opened in 2008), there has been little pomp or circumstance around this franchise since.
Not that hopes weren't high: In 2012, the Nationals produced the game's best record, but that was the year of the infamous Strasburg shutdown. Attempting to protect their franchise pitcher during his first full season, they shut him down for the year in early September and then were upset by the St. Louis Cardinals in the Division Series.
In fact, until this autumn, the Nationals had not won a postseason series since moving from Montreal, also losing in the Division Series in 2014, 2016 and 2017.
To locate any baseball success in Washington—which was tagged as early as 1904 with the sobriquet "first in war, first in peace and last in the American League" by baseball writer Charles Dryden—you have to go all the way back to 1933, when the District last hosted a World Series and the New York Giants beat the Senators in five games.
The one and only Washington World Series win came in 1924, when the Senators beat the Giants in seven games. The winning pitcher in the 12-inning clincher was none other than Hall of Famer Walter "Big Train" Johnson.
Few expected the 2019 Nationals to finish their season in late October with Patrick Corbin succeeding Johnson as the next winning pitcher in a World Series clincher, especially after allowing star outfielder Bryce Harper to walk as a free agent.
But by the time he signed with Philadelphia in February, the Nationals—who had added free-agent pitchers Corbin and Anibal Sanchez and infielder Brian Dozier, among others—knew they were onto something special.
"We're a better team," one high-ranking executive said on an early spring training day in February. "Our pieces fit together better."
Scherzer saw it, too.
"When we signed Anibal, I played with him, I knew what he was about. Getting him on our staff, I knew that was going to be a great thing," said Scherzer, a teammate of Sanchez's in Detroit from 2012 to 2014. "He does such a great job of creating a culture with the Latino culture and with the American culture, getting everybody on the same page and having fun together.
"He's so much fun to play with, so much fun to pitch with. On and off the field, he's so crucial to our clubhouse. And then when you start talking about [Gerardo] Parra and all the other guys, what Dozier's meant to this clubhouse—you can go up and down the lineup of what everyone's meant to this team. It was one through 25, and it's just an amazing feeling when you have that feeling with your team."
After Strasburg delivered 8.1 sturdy innings to win Game 6, someone asked him whether he might be available in relief for Game 7, if only for an out or two.
"No, I emptied the tank tonight," Strasburg said. "Again, it's trusting everybody next to you. It's going to take all 25 of us."
Team, team, team. We, we, we.
And so it did, right down to Rendon's first Game 7 strike against Greinke, a one-out solo homer in the seventh. And Kendrick, the old-hand designated hitter, blasting a two-run homer two batters later. And Eaton drawing a walk and coming around to score in the eighth, and then driving two more runs home with a base hit in the ninth.
And right down to Scherzer—already charting unknown waters coming back so quickly after he needed his wife's help simply to dress himself Sunday morning—pairing with catcher Yan Gomes for Game 7 after losing his regular backstop, Kurt Suzuki, at the last minute because of a hip injury.
While all eyes were on Scherzer, it was Suzuki who walked into Martinez's office Wednesday afternoon and tearfully told his manager that he couldn't go.
Suzuki, Scherzer's regular catcher, had strained his right hip flexor earlier in the series and, like Scherzer over the past 48 hours, had done everything possible in the trainer's room to get himself ready to go.
But with his name already in the Game 7 lineup and first pitch closing in, he realized a hard truth.
"At some point, you've got to put your ego in your back pocket and say what's best for the team," Suzuki said.
The 13-year veteran called it "the hardest decision I've ever made in my baseball career." In Martinez's office, he broke down in tears. Scherzer came in, delivered a hug, and told him: "I love you, bro. I know you did everything you could. We got you."
They sure did.
Those first two months—when their bullpen was historically bad and regulars Trea Turner, Rendon, Soto and Kendrick each was knocked onto the injured list—were a distant memory. Beginning May 24, the Nationals began racking up curly W after curly W, with their 74-38 record from that date onward tying that of the Los Angeles Dodgers for the game's second-best mark. Only the Astros (74-37) were better.
And despite the Astros owning the game's best home record this summer at 60-21, the Nationals figured if they could buzz through Gerrit Cole and Justin Verlander in Houston in Games 1 and 2, why couldn't they finish it off in Minute Maid Park, even after losing three in a row at home?
Scherzer's miraculous return was the exclamation mark. Not only did he fly to Houston in a neck brace after getting "shot up with different s--t" Saturday and then cortisone Sunday to alleviate the spasms in the trapezius, but he also wore the neck brace to bed at night—including on the eve of Game 7.
That's why, he said, he wasn't worried about what he would wake up to when he went to sleep Tuesday night. By then, he figured, he had made it through the flight, the cortisone was working and the team chiropractor had performed several small miracles.
"I never felt like the moment or the situation of the game ever was going to wear me down," said Scherzer, who pitched to a 2.09 ERA with Suzuki behind the plate this year and a 4.09 mark with Yan Gomes catching. "I was going to continue to execute pitches and stay with Yan. I've been working with Suzuki the whole year, but I don't believe in just throwing to one catcher. I believe that you have to be able to throw to both catchers.
"I wanted to stay with Yan. I really wanted to make it stick. Watching what he did with Stras last night, I really had a belief that he knows what he's doing. I just wanted to continue to execute pitches. I knew the situation, even though I was giving up some runs and Greinke was throwing the ball well, that our team was going to fight."
As the champagne sprayed and the night grew longer, they thought of outfielder Jayson Werth, the first big free-agent signing here back in 2010, and how he changed the culture into one that learned how to win. They remembered the strain over the years to reach this championship moment.
Under old-school general manager Mike Rizzo, they have gone against the grain and invested heavily in starting pitching: Scherzer, at $210 million over seven years. Corbin, at $140 million over six years. Re-upping Strasburg at $175 million over seven years (he has an opt-out he can exercise this winter if he desires).
They also have not been afraid to acquire veterans. We may be having a "Let the kids play" moment, but these Nationals are the oldest team in the majors, with an average age of 31.1 years. As several of them joke, around here it's "Let the viejos play."
Just maybe, they said as they celebrated, other teams in a copycat sport will pick up on all this.
"I hope so," Doolittle said. "Teams don't have to go through full tear-downs to win the World Series. This organization didn't use the [complete] rebuild model. We went out and got guys with reputations for being good teammates, good clubhouse guys.
"I hope the game sees what we did. There are a bunch of guys past 30 years old who played huge roles on this team."
On Wednesday night, there was no one in the game who didn't notice.
Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball.