On May 23, the Washington Nationals lost a matinee to the Mets in heartbreaking fashion, taking a lead 4-3 with a three-run eighth inning only to give up three runs of their own in the bottom of the frame. The loss dropped the Nationals to 19-31, a whopping 10 games back of the division-leading Phillies. They had been outscored by 40 runs on the season, and Dave Martinez’s seat was getting hot in only his second year as manager.
On Tuesday night, the Nationals will play in the World Series. It’s a change in fortune so extreme that it begs for explanation, and at first glance the explanation is easy. The Nationals have star power but lack depth, the exact kind of team “built for October.” Their starting lineup and top four starting pitchers are phenomenal; the less said about the backups and bullpen, the better. The kind of Nationals team losing 6-4 on a Tuesday afternoon in Queens is simply not the same team playing now.
That’s a convenient explanation, but it’s also wrong. Stephen Strasburg threw seven innings that day, and no regular had the day off. Wander Suero was the only reliever to pitch, and he wasn’t one of the relievers who weighed the Nationals down this year; he had a 4.54 ERA and 3.07 FIP over 71.1 innings, a solid season for a middle reliever.
No, the Nationals sent out their best, their co-ace starter backed by the A-squad, and they lost to a Mets team playing Adeiny Hechavarría, Carlos Gómez, and Juan Lagares all at once. That same team survived the Brewers, outlasted the Dodgers, and walked all over the Cardinals on their way to the first World Series appearance in franchise history. The convenient story isn’t always the right one. Washington simply started playing better.
After that bleak day in May, the Nations went 74-38 to finish the regular season. They outscored their opponents by 189 runs, scoring the most runs in the National League and allowing the third-least. The talent at the top of the roster shone through; the combined brilliance of Strasburg, Max Scherzer, Anthony Rendon, Juan Soto, and all the rest was so great that no amount of bullpen incompetence or lack of bench depth (36-year-old Howie Kendrick played the second-most innings at third base for them this year) could hold the team down.
Shockingly, that 74-38 record wasn’t the best in baseball. The Houston Astros, their World Series opponents, went 74-37 over the same stretch, a scant half-game ahead. They scored four fewer runs than the Nationals and allowed one more. The two hottest teams in baseball are facing off in the World Series, and if you don’t think about it too literally, you could even say they’re constructed from the same blueprint. Read the rest of this entry »