For the Nationals, a Bumpy Road Led to a Beautiful Place

The Washington Nationals are World Series bound following Tuesday night’s sweep-completing 7-4 win over the St. Louis Cardinals. They couldn’t be much hotter. Since a September 18 loss to the team they just vanquished, the Dave Martinez-managed Nationals have won 18 of their last 21 games.

How remarkable was their turnaround from the 19-31 start that had Martinez firmly in the crosshairs? The 2005 Houston Astros, the 1973 New York Mets, and the 1914 Boston Braves are the only other teams to have made it to the World Series after being 12 games under .500 at any point during the season.

The Cardinals deserve some credit of their own. The Mike Shildt-skippered squad went 47-27 in the second half, then beat the favored Braves in the NLDS. They simply had the misfortune of running into a pitching-rich Nationals team that has now punched its ticket to the Fall Classic.

Here are perspectives from participants on each side, gathered prior to, and after, Games 3 and 4.

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Following Game 3, I asked Martinez about team’s confidence level, which is undoubtedly the highest it’s been all season. With the early-season struggles in mind, just how important is confidence to a team’s success?

“It’s huge, but it didn’t just start, miraculously,” answered Martinez. “This has been building since the end of May. I mean, we had our backs against the wall, and they stuck with it. They believed in each other, and they believed that they were going to bounce back, that this thing was going to turn around.

“We’ve been playing playoff games since then. We had to play really good to come back and do the things we’ve done. In September, they believed that they can do this, and they’re not taking anything for granted. They’re playing really hard, and playing to win one game every day. The big message — I say it every day — is to go 1-0 every day. They believe that.”

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Washington has a record of 82-40 since reaching their May 23 nadir.

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The Cardinals had a .500 record when I saw them play in San Diego at the end of June. Admitting that I didn’t think I was watching a playoff-bound club at the time, I asked St. Louis righty Miles Mikolas how they proved me wrong in the second half.

“We played a much better brand of baseball than we had at times in the first half,” Mikolas said. “We pitched well. We hit well. We got runs when we needed them. We got big stops when we needed them. We’re that same baseball team, we just haven’t been clicking so great this series.”

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The Cardinals were outscored by a count of 20-6 in the NLCS.

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Dave Martinez was asked by another reporter about his team’s postseason pitcher usage. More specifically, is their heavy reliance on starters — this being the age of bullpenning — more about talent level, or philosophy.

“As you know, we went out and got another starter last year with [Patrick] Corbin,” answered Martinez. “We believe in starting pitching. That’s where it all starts. Rizz [GM Mike Rizzo] did a great job of getting the guys we have now. They keep us in ball games.”

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Nationals starters went without a loss for 27 consecutive games between June 16 and July 20, tying a record set by the 1916 New York Giants. In their sweep of the Cardinals, the foursome of Patrick Corbin, Aníbal Sánchez, Stephen Strasburg, and Max Scherzer combined for 26-and-two-third innings, 13 hits allowed, six walks, and 40 strikeouts. They allowed just five runs, one of which was unearned.

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Following Game 4, I asked Paul Goldschmidt if the Nationals’ starting rotation is the best he faced over the course of the season.

“I think that’s pretty fair to say,” the slugger responded. “Especially the way they pitched. It’s definitely up there, if it’s not the best. But we knew that going in. That was their strength the whole year, and they performed these four games. You try to have your game plan, and try to find a way to beat [pitchers], and we weren’t good enough to do that.”

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Adam Wainwright shared similar sentiments, citing St. Louis’ first-inning explosion in NLDS Game 5

“We put 10 against a very good pitcher in Atlanta,” said the veteran right-hander. “Baseball is a weird game like that. Anything can happen at any time. Once you get in the playoffs, you never know what’s going to happen. That’s why it’s fun to get in. It was good to win that first series, but it’s very disappointing that we didn’t play better baseball in the second series.”

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Why had the Cardinals had a successful season prior to running into a Nationals buzzsaw? I posed that question to St. Louis GM Michael Girsch.

“We’ve been a good run-prevention-focused team,” Girch told me on Monday. “Our pitching has been very good. Our defense has been very good. Our offense has been good enough to make it work. Shildty and his staff have done a great job. When Shildty took over last year, he talked a lot about fundamentals. That’s allowed us to play up to our expectations, and maybe outplay some people’s expectations.”

Girsch cited Goldschmidt as a big reason the St. Louis infield was as good as it was.

“First base defense is hard to quantify,” said Girsch. “It’s hard to put a number on how many runs a first baseman saves, [but] last year we were playing guys out of position there, hoping it would work. That adversely affected us. And it wasn’t just the plays they didn’t make; it put pressure on everybody else in the infield. Kolten [Wong] makes plays all over the infield and throws the ball in the general vicinity of first base, and Goldy finds a way to stay on the bag and make the play. That’s a small part of it. Overall, we’ve been fundamentally sound. We haven’t made many errors.”

Girsch was statistically spot on with the latter of those observations. Official scorers charged Cardinals’ defenders with just 66 errors, the fewest of any team. By comparison, the Miami Marlins were charged with literally double that number.

The numbers don’t show it — error totals can be misleading — but Girsch’s team proceeded to play subpar defense during the NLCS. A huge asset leading into the series, it was an Achilles heel against the Nationals.

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There was speculation that Martinez’s job was in danger when the Nationals got off to an abysmal start. I asked Aníbal Sánchez about that prior to Game 4.

“When you’ve got a really good team and the result isn’t there, there’s always a lot of speculation,” said Sánchez. “I remember reading an article, probably the end of May, that said probably the whole team is going to be traded. But at the end, we’re here. Whatever we’ve done to be here was really good, and all the speculation is done… We never pay too much attention to what’s going on outside the clubhouse.”

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Andrew Miller recognizes that staying the course with the right manager is not only prudent, it can lead to a berth in the World Series.

“You’re going to have situations where the media, or the fans, can feel something different than the players,” the St. Louis southpaw told me following Game 4. “If the players believe in what’s going on in the clubhouse, if they feel it’s the right process — even when it’s not working — a team can flip the script. [The Nationals] proved that. We never had any hot-seat stuff around here — Shildty did a great job and is well-regarded — but you can feel it when the players buy in. And if the manager is a guy you really like, it feels good as a player when you’re able to take care of business.”

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Washington’s well-liked manager succinctly encapsulated his team’s not-yet-completed journey from atop a makeshift stage erected on the Nationals Park infield.

“Bumpy roads often lead to beautiful places,” an ebullient Martinez told a joyous crowd last night. “And this is a beautiful place.”

We hoped you liked reading For the Nationals, a Bumpy Road Led to a Beautiful Place by David Laurila!

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David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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Mike D
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Mike D

I wonder what Bryce Harper is thinking right now

tung_twista
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tung_twista

Probably thinking about how he is living in so many people’s heads rent-free.

sadtrombone
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sadtrombone

Diving into his vault of money, Scrooge McDuck-style.

JLandonDC
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JLandonDC

He had the choice to stay with the Nats when they made a substantial contract offer just after the season. That offer is reported to have been the biggest free agent contract in the history of the four major North American sports yet he turned it down. Yes, much of the contract was deferred but those things can always be negotiated. Rather to pursue that negotiation with the Nats, he decided to look elsewhere. Since he signed with the highest bidder and not the team with the best chance for success, it’s reasonable to assume that winning a championship was not Harper’s first goal.

Harper got what he wanted– more money than anyone in baseball had ever earned. What he gave up was the chance to share in the future success of the Nationals or any other team with which he could have signed. That the Nats have finally achieved some is probably irrelevant to him.