In the first ever NLCS game at Nationals Park, it took Stephen Strasburg four minutes to get through the top of the first.
This was not news. This postseason, the Nationals’ pitching staff has functioned like a predator perfected by nature, having adapted to years of playoff experience as the prey, maybe sporting a few scars, maybe missing an eye, but understanding at this point that the only way to win is to tear the other team’s heart out before they even start reaching for yours.
The next inning, another crucial component of the Nationals was on display. Cardinals starter Jack Flaherty got buzzed by a Trea Turner comebacker that Kolten Wong managed to snare and, going the other way, successfully bounce-passed to Paul Goldschmidt at first. Adam Eaton punched a casual liner to left, where it hung up just enough for Marcell Ozuna to get a glove under it. It was one of the few times on the evening Ozuna looked like he knew how to use it.
Already down 2-0 in the series, it was apparent after only two batters that the Cardinals could only hope to throw themselves on the Nationals, praying a heaping mass of nine men would be enough to smother the crackling Washington lineup, since their own offense was apparently only ever four minutes away from being off the field. It would take every defensive instinct the Cardinals had to stand up against the forces guiding the Nationals, as even getting their first two outs of the game had been a pair of adventures.
The term “team of destiny” gets thrown around a little too often these days, partially because it’s deeply inaccurate. Every team has a destiny. It’s just that at the moment, the Cardinals’ seem like theirs is to be devoured by a Nationals pitching staff sporting the very mojo the Cardinals themselves once had in the postseason.
Later in the first, Flaherty managed to get Juan Soto to strike out looking with a man on, and so, for a moment, St. Louis had held back the tide. With eight innings left to play.
First Cardinals hit
Game 1: 27th hitter of game
Game 2: 21st hitter of game
Game 3: 4th hitter of game
— Jayson Stark (@jaysonst) October 15, 2019
But the undeniable energy coming off the Nationals would remain for the rest of the game, small moments becoming bigger ones, and the Cardinals’ occasional successes being erased by great plays by Washington or good luck near them: Ozuna hit a double off Strasburg in the second to give the Cardinals their third entire hit against a Nationals starter this postseason, and then TOOTBLAN’d himself right off the bases on a fielder’s choice.
Through the game’s early stages, Washington proceeded with what felt like a blessing from the gods: Rendon made an MVP-like play again in the third, spearing a Paul DeJong grounder with a move that confirmed the Cardinals were just hitting into a brick wall, and Strasburg kept his foot on the Cardinals’ collective neck from the mound, striking out 12 hitters over seven frames.
It was an interminable two innings before the Nationals finally broke through. Adam Eaton singled in Victor Robles to make it a 1-0 game. Then, the Nationals scored their 20th, 21st, and 22nd runs with two outs in the NLCS (they boast 34). A sinking liner off the bat of Rendon went in and out of Ozuna’s glove in left and allowed Adam Eaton to score from first; Howie Kendrick knocked in a pair of runs with a double. Kendrick would knock in another one in the fifth with a gap-splitting double that was so hot, Ozuna couldn’t even pick it up on his first try. This is the same Howie Kendrick who seemingly couldn’t hit or catch the baseball before his game-winning grand slam in the NLDS against a 106-win opponent. Ryan Zimmerman and his “Last Original Nat” narrative knocked Kendrick in moments later.
All of this, again, with two outs.
It was 6-0 at this point, as good a time as any to sit back and consider just what in the hell we’re looking at.
Years ago, the Cubs were darlings. There were some hold-outs among us, sure, but watching them ascend to the 2016 World Series and win it, kicking in baseball’s longest-locked door, was more than a baseball moment, it was a cultural moment, and at least a little bit, in that way, we all got to enjoy it. On their way to the throne, the Cubs had to get through an “even-year” Giants team, a squad infamous for its ability to find heroes in the bench bats, in the mid-season throw-ins, in the dust bunnies under the clubhouse couch, and come out on top despite the odds being against them in every postseason during which there was an even number on the calendar since 2010. The Giants had cruised to three non-consecutive World Series titles with the help of players like Cody Ross, Conor Gillaspie, and Juan Uribe, breaking the hearts of fans left screaming to the heavens that it wasn’t supposed to be this way.
In the past decade, the Cardinals, too, have garnered a similar reputation, though their ability to magic their way to a title wasn’t limited to any particular year. It’s called Cardinals Devil Magic, and it’s the term used to describe the familiar trauma teams like the 2012 Nationals experienced when Cardinals background characters like Daniel Descalso and Pete Kozma ended their season.
And so it’s easy to sense a change here in 2019, as the Nationals cut through the Cardinals like a hot knife through a literal bird, but a familiar one; once again, we have a team seeking a trophy after several miserable chances to claim it, and having to go through a postseason mainstay like the Cardinals to do so, while every fan is just waiting for the moment it will all collapse. But here we are watching Game 3 of the NLCS with far less drama for the Nationals and far more good hops and hanging liners in their favor, as well as unfiltered dominance (the Nationals turned that 6-0 lead into an easy 8-1 victory). Who knows what they did to get on the right side of fate, but whatever algorithm got them there, there are 29 other teams that would have paid dearly for it — and a couple that tried to.
The old ways are dying out: First the even-year Giants in 2016, and now, quite likely, Cardinals Devil Magic that was so alive just days ago. Perhaps the Nationals will finish this off at home in Game 4, and, with no Giants or Dodgers or Cardinals to speak of, they can present us with a fresh new World Series match-up of the Nationals and the… uh, Yankees or Astros.
Well. Sometimes you don’t need fate, when you’re math’s good enough.
There are people rooting against the Nationals now, but even they must wonder if their efforts are fruitless. This team has been beaten too many times to not know how to win. And one day, in the next few years, it could be the Nationals who are the scourge of playoff baseball, the uniforms we’re sick of seeing, the faces we’re tired of watching smile. You only get to be the darling once; then you’re boring.
The Nationals have a tall task in front of them, regardless of which American League team makes the World Series, but should they get there and finally win it all, the Cardinals would be the first to tell them: When it happens the first time, it’s magic.
Every time after, it’s the devil.
Justin is a contributor to FanGraphs and a contributor to Baseball Prospectus. He is known in his family for jamming free hot dogs in his pockets during an off-season tour of Veterans Stadium and eating them on the car ride home.