The Washington Nationals Are World Series Champions

Five times, the Washington Nationals faced elimination from the 2019 postseason. Five times, they trailed in those games. And five times, they prevailed. The Washington Nationals are World Series Champions. They were 19-31 in the late days of May. They were down 3-1 in the Wild Card Game with Josh Hader coming in. They were down 3-1 in Game 5 against the Dodgers. They were down 2-1 yesterday, coming back to Houston after scoring just three runs in their three, first-ever World Series home games, and they were down 2-0 entering the seventh yesterday. But the Washington Nationals are World Series Champions. That’s how the story of the 2019 season ends.

***

The game already promised to be a monumental one. It was a Game 7. It was a showdown between two of the game’s longest-tenured and best pitchers, Scherzer vs. Greinke: Max Scherzer, the overpowering madman risen from the grave of debilitating neck pain to pitch in the biggest game of his career, and Zack Greinke, the big acquisition of the trade deadline, the player who had once nearly left baseball due to anxiety now calmly preparing to take on the most anxiety-inducing situation in baseball. For the first time in history, all six previous games had been won by the road team, the Nationals and the Astros stunning each other and their home crowds by turns. The series win expectancy flipped over and over on itself. Now, though, it was a matter of one game.

Right from the outset, Greinke was masterful. He retired the side in the top of the first on just eight pitches. A slider for a lineout snagged by Alex Bregman, a changeup and a slider for a pair of weak groundouts. A swinging strike on a 68 mph curveball. And for six innings, the game was exactly that: Greinke’s. He controlled the edges of Jim Wolf’s pitcher-friendly strike zone, controlled the infield with his sure-handed fielding of each of the many balls hit his way, as if to accentuate the degree to which the game was steady in his grip. Through six innings, the Nationals managed just a single hit and a single walk. Any lead, with that kind of performance ongoing, would seem like a clear path to the championship.

Scherzer, meanwhile, came out of the gate firing with every cylinder he had. His first pitch of the game, a fastball outside to the ever-dangerous George Springer, was 96.7 mph — per Baseball Savant, the velocity of his four-seamer this season averaged 94.9 mph. Though Scherzer fell behind Springer 2-0, he managed to retire him on a sharp flyout to Victor Robles. And though he walked Michael Brantley after inducing a groundout from José Altuve, he managed to get out of the first inning unscathed.

But the problems of the first inning — poor location, trouble commanding the slider, allowing hard contact — would continue. The bottom of the second began with a home run from Yuli Gurriel, a 2-1 slider sliced into the Crawford Boxes, giving the Astros the lead once again. After the next two batters promptly reached on back-to-back singles, things were not looking good for the Nationals.

But Robinson Chirinos popped out on an errant bunt on the next pitch, and though Scherzer fell behind the following two batters as well, both were retired, stranding two Astros in scoring position. The narrative of the Astros’ historic offense suddenly struggling to drive in runners on second and third in the postseason has followed them through the World Series, even as they took the 3-2 Series advantage with those decisive victories in Washington. In Game 7, it once again defined the Astros’ bats. The Astros put two runners on base in each of the three innings that followed. Only once did they manage to drive in a run, on this single from Carlos Correa in the bottom of the fifth that gave them a 2-0 lead.

The bottom of the fifth would end up being Scherzer’s last frame. He left with his team behind, and he surely didn’t pitch as long as the Nationals would have hoped for. This was not a performance like Stephen Strasburg’s yesterday, one that removes some of the mental strain of piecing together innings out of bullpen fragments. But it was no less important. Here was the team’s ace, who just a few days ago had been in so much pain that he couldn’t even dress himself, in Game 7 of the World Series, against baseball’s best offense, on a day when he clearly didn’t have his best stuff. He got himself, and the team, through five innings. They were down 2-0, but they had seen worse.

Out of the pen in the sixth came Patrick Corbin, the Nationals’ answer of sorts to Greinke: their big new pitching acquisition, though Corbin came via free agency instead of trade. Corbin’s multipurpose function this postseason came with perhaps mixed results: Three of his seven appearances prior to Game 7 were scoreless, but he allowed 16 runs over 17 and two-thirds innings in the other four. And it would be hard for Nationals fans to forget the disaster that followed his entry in the sixth inning of Game 3 against the Dodgers.

But today, Corbin was clean. A leadoff single from Jake Marisnick seemed like it might herald the coming of the end, but it was swiftly erased on a strikeout and a double play from Springer and Jose Altuve. The Astros’ advantage was held to just the two runs.

The next time Corbin took the mound, the Nationals had the lead.

***

In my recap of Game 2, I wrote about the strange energy of the seventh inning — of the number seven in baseball more generally. Appropriate, then, that the seventh was where the tide of Game 7 shifted — when the laws of gravity suddenly reversed. It happened quickly, so quickly that you almost couldn’t process what you were seeing: Greinke retired Adam Eaton for the first out of the inning — same old, same old — and then, in the blink of an eye, Anthony Rendon had cut the Astros’ lead in half.

Up to the plate came Juan Soto. He offered at just one pitch from Greinke — a curveball, far outside of the strike zone. He watched four of them go by. The tying run was aboard, and the game was no longer Greinke’s. A.J. Hinch took that walk out to the mound, took the ball out of Greinke’s hand, and out of the bullpen came Will Harris. Harris has been nearly untouchable this postseason, allowing his first run of October in Game 6. The move to him, to my mind, made sense. The Astros had seen late leads crumble against the Nationals before, and Harris had been their best reliever.

Two pitches later, Howie Kendrick changed the course of history.

Another home crowd, stunned into silence. The Nationals didn’t look back. They added another run on a Soto single in the eighth, and in the ninth tacked on two more on an Eaton single and a Marisnick error. The parade of Astros relievers couldn’t staunch the bleeding; Gerrit Cole looked on from the bullpen. And on the mound for Washington, Corbin didn’t falter, and the Astros continued to be frustrated. He pitched the seventh and eighth, allowing just one baserunner — Gurriel, on a single. His eighth was the Nationals’ first clean inning of the day.

Still, the bottom of the ninth would be a hell of a final gauntlet to run. The series, despite the four-run lead, was not yet on ice. It would be Springer, Altuve, and Brantley against Daniel Hudson.

It was no contest. Popout, strikeout, strikeout. Hudson’s glove in the air, Astros fans shellshocked in their seats or heading for the exits, a roar from the Nationals dugout as they stormed the field, and a roar from the far-flung fans gathered behind them, who had come so far for the sometimes distant-seeming hope of witnessing a championship.

And there they were, the team that had never won a playoff series before, the team that was 19-31, who stood on the brink of oblivion five times over and never fell. Strasburg, whose narrative of absence has been replaced by a World Series MVP trophy, and Soto, the young phenom, and Rendon, the quiet superstar, and Zimmerman, the line stretching through the franchise. Scherzer and Aníbal Sánchez, old friends from a team that never quite made it to the top, reunited to win it all. And there was the strongest team in baseball, returned to take back their title and secure their dynasty, only to falter in the last nine outs; the best pitcher on earth, who carried them through this postseason, who seems soon to depart, and the lineup of MVPs, the Altuves and Bregmans and Springers, who will keep them coming back to this point for years to come. All of them were there, forming this unforgettable conclusion.

The Washington Nationals are 2019 World Series Champions.

***

Why do you care about baseball? I posed this question via Twitter in the hours before the game. The answers, which I’d encourage you to take a look at, were as varied as the people answering them. People told stories of childhood, or stories of adulthood; of parents and siblings and children and friends; of certain players, certain plays; of smells and sights and sounds and silences; of spreadsheets and the thrill of discovery; of finding a diamond-shaped light in the darkness. Some people feel the persistent lingering of a nearly-gone nostalgia. Some people just don’t know. And some know everything they need to: We care about baseball because it’s baseball. What else is there to say?

But what is baseball? There is baseball — the physical actions that comprise the game. And there is baseball — all the other things, the rules and the people and the history and the business. And somewhere in between those two is the baseball that we all care about so much. The baseball that feels so specific to each person, the baseball that’s somehow the same for everyone. It’s the silence right as the pitch is about to leave the pitcher’s hand, the space between the runner’s foot and the first-base bag, the inch separating the ball and the grass and the glove. It’s a void that we fill with a story.

Caring about this particular story takes a lot of time, a lot of energy. It feels bad, sometimes. It is bad, sometimes. It doesn’t make sense to keep filling up this void. But we humans tell stories in the hope that someone will hear — that they’ll understand, and they’ll remember. So we keep telling it. We try to make it a good one.

***

Before the game began yesterday afternoon, I was hurriedly running errands. Buying groceries for the meal I would cook while watching the game; we needed more hand soap for the bathroom; had I already gotten some sponges? Last week was typical October here, chilly and grey and full of rain — days end-to-end with rain — and that’s how I remember the postseason. Sitting on the curb as I walked to the bus stop, listening to the end of the 2016 Jays on my little old portable radio, perched on a rock on the beach writing end-of-season recaps in the dark after the Dodgers lost back-to-back — always cold, always with the clouds casting their pall over everything. I don’t mind it. I love the rain. I don’t hate the sun anymore, but I still do love the rain.

This week, though, was uncharacteristically bright. The colors of autumn only end up shining for a few isolated afternoons, normally. Take a nap, wake up, and you’re back in the real world again, the light hidden away, and it’s time to get working, anyway. But I went to class last Friday morning in a downpour, and I left in a clear world, the clouds swept away by gusts of wind so strong they almost knocked me over. They haven’t come back. They will, but not yet. And so I hurried home with my groceries in the sunlight as Greinke threw his warmup pitches in Houston, as the radio broadcast faded out to the final ad break before the beginning of the end, my feet crunching through the piles of crisp fallen leaves not yet swept aside.

A block away from home, my phone rang. A foreign-looking number — a Michigan area code. Didn’t know who that might be. I usually don’t pick up, but I picked up this time. It was my older brother, yelling. He was yelling because he was at Nats Park, getting ready to watch Game 7 with thousands of other people in the pouring rain. I could hear them, hear the buzz behind him, as he told me happy birthday.

It’s been 10 birthdays since he’s been at home to tell me that in person, and just a few birthdays before that we were still little kids, and I was still at his Little League games barely watching them, and we were throwing baseballs back and forth and inventing worlds for ourselves that never ended up existing, no matter how real they seemed in those moments. No, the world we found ourselves in was this one: Him in D.C. witnessing World Series history, and me in Vancouver, rushing back to the home baseball allowed me to have, waiting to document the same history he was standing in. What childhood imagination could have foretold that? A few thousand miles between us, but the same shared gift, still there, the same in the hours before 22 as it had been at 12. There was a baseball game, and we were watching it.

I thanked him, and told him to enjoy the game. I made my way home in the sunlight.





RJ is the dilettante-in-residence at FanGraphs. Previous work can be found at Baseball Prospectus, VICE Sports, and The Hardball Times.

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Cave Dameron
2 years ago

I’m so glad the Astros got Osuna.