After a truly fascinating and, at times, pretty bizarre series, the Washington Nationals are your 2019 World Series Champions. They upset the preseason and pre-series favorite Houston Astros and, in doing so, have lain claim to the first title for the franchise and the capital’s first since 1924. It was a long road to get to this point, one filled with many twists and turns and Washington’s postseason experience was, in many ways, a microcosm of their regular season.
First, there were the comebacks. The Nationals almost didn’t make it out of the Wild Card Game, trailing the Milwaukee Brewers 3-1 in the eighth inning when they got to one of the best relievers in baseball in Josh Hader. They fell behind in elimination games twice in the NLDS to the National League favorite Dodgers and they came back both times. So it should have surprised no one that they capped a historic run with a rousing, come-from-behind victory in Game 7 of the World Series.
There was probably no more apropos way for the Nationals to clinch, then, as they now stand as the only team in MLB history to trail in five elimination games and come back to win every single one of them. After the Astros staked former Cy Young winner and trade deadline acquisition Zach Greinke an early lead, it seemed like the Astros were being given a golden opportunity to win the first home game of the series and their second title in three years. This was the same Greinke, who had almost quit pitching because of anxiety, but now found himself on the biggest stage imaginable, pitching the game of his life and absolutely dominating the Nationals for the first six innings.
For the Nationals, starter Max Scherzer, who missed a start three days prior and couldn’t even get out of bed without assistance, was certainly less than the dominant force we’ve come to expect when he takes the mound. But he struggled through five innings and kept the game close despite allowing plenty of traffic on the bases, with two runners left stranded in each of the second through fifth innings. Houston’s inability to score early and create separation allowed the Nationals to stay in it through the seventh inning, when a Anthony Rendon solo shot and Howie Kendrick two-run dinger would provide the Nationals with all the runs they needed to finish out the game.
But we should have known it was coming, because these Nationals could never be counted out. Not only had they come back in all those elimination games, but they’d had to crawl their way back into a successful season in the first place. After going 19-31 through May 23, it looked like their season was crumbling. Then they became an absolute beast, going 74-38 the rest of the way.
While Washington may have taken a circuitous path to arrive at their first championship, the fact that they’re here isn’t really surprising. After all, this is a team that, over the past eight seasons, has finished over .500 eight times and made the postseason five times. Sure, they lost Bryce Harper to a division rival this offseason, but it’s not as if this was a roster without a ton of talent, as GM Mike Rizzo built a team that could hang with, and ultimately come from behind and defeat, some of the best teams in baseball this year.
On a team full of veterans that was the oldest in all of baseball, Ryan Zimmerman was the cornerstone. The Washington Nationals’ first overall draft pick in 2005 after the Expos moved to D.C., Zimmerman’s era of dominance may be behind him, but he homered off of one of the best pitchers in baseball, Gerrit Cole, in Game 1 to cut Houston’s lead in half and get things started for Washington.
But Zimmerman doesn’t take home the MMVVPP (that’s “Most, Most Valuable Veteran Position Player,” ICYWW). Thirty-six-year-old Kendrick scored the go ahead run last night, but before that, he hit the walk off Grand Slam that sent the Nationals to the NLCS, where he earned the series MVP nod in their sweep of the Cardinals. After an injury shortened 2018, Kendrick put up the best numbers at the plate in his fourteen-year career and then had some of the most important at-bats of Washington’s postseason.
Juan Soto was the youngblood who turned 21 during this World Series, allowing him to set a number of records for such a young player on baseball’s biggest stage. Whether or not you think his antics are amusing or infuriating, you can’t deny that he’s a sensation and an absolute monster at the plate, one who hit .333/.438/.741 in his first taste of the Fall Classic. Adam Eaton and Trea Turner both came to Washington via trade and both have struggled with injuries only to find themselves healthy (or at least “healthy enough,” given Turner’s busted-up finger) at the right time. Those trades are reflecting pretty well on Rizzo right about now.
And at the heart of it all was the Houston native Rendon, who had a career season in his walk year. Whether or not he wins the MVP, he was certainly Washington’s MVP. Oh, and he’s also a low-key trolling expert who thinks baseball is boring and offers up amazing sound bytes like this. So, yes, he is a national, not just a National, treasure.
Rizzo may have entered the season with all those players, but some of the midseason acquisitions turned out to be truly important. Asdrúbal Cabrera was released by the Rangers and after coming to Washington hit .323/.404/.565. Gerardo Parra was picked up off the shelf in May after the Giants DFA-ed him and, while he was mostly absent from the postseason, he was a clubhouse treasure who got thousands of fans rocking out to Baby Shark.
Then there’s the starting pitching. Stephen Strasburg was the Nationals’ first overall pick in 2009 and now he’s the World Series MVP. It was big news when the Nationals shut him down back in 2012, the first year that the Nationals made the postseason and immediately got the boot. But any regret they might have had about that decision is now forgotten, what with Strasburg turning into a postseason legend. Washington has now won the past seven postseason games Strasburg has appeared in, with his eight and a third innings of two-run baseball in an elimination Game 6 being the latest. He’s now the only starting pitcher to go 5-0 in a postseason in MLB history and the first World Series MVP for the team that drafted him.
Scherzer’s seven-year, $210 million contract in 2015 is starting to look like one of the best free agent contracts of all time, even if it seemed insane at the time. Scherzer has won two Cy Young Awards in D.C. and may very well win a third this year. Even if he doesn’t, he went 3-0 with a 2.40 ERA in the World Series and kept his team in it in Game 7 despite his recent injury woes, earning himself a place in postseason lore.
Washington’s big free agent acquisition of last offseason, Patrick Corbin, may have struggled at times, allowing 16 runs over 17 and two-thirds innings in four appearances, but three of his seven appearances before Game 7 were scoreless, and his three perfect innings out of the bullpen last night mean it’s going to be at least a little while before his six-year, $140 million contract draws the ire of any Washington fans.
The bullpen may have been the Nationals’ Achilles’ heel, but manager Davey Martinez was able to limit Houston’s ability to hit against anything but their best relievers in high leverage situations. Houston didn’t see much of Washington staff other than their top three, fourth starter Aníbal Sánchez and relievers Sean Doolittle and Daniel Hudson. A six-pitcher staff certainly wouldn’t work in the regular season, but it sure did in the World Series, and was certainly a contrast to Houston’s manager A.J. Hinch uncharacteristically mismanaging his staff in Game 7. Houston may have had the better bullpen in the regular season, but, in the end, it didn’t matter.
The Nationals drafted well, made shrewd trades and spent mightily to get their rings this year. That latter fact almost seems crazy in this day of every team trying to find new ways to cut their payrolls. Last year, the Red Sox showed us that spending freely but smartly is a good way to earn a championship and this year the Nationals did the same. They’re going to have a tough road to a repeat, considering that Rendon, Kendrick and Cabrera will all be free agents, and Strasburg can opt out into free agency shortly if he wants. But those are questions for tomorrow.
Right now, we should all just sit back and appreciate the fact that we just witnessed an incredible series that perfectly encapsulated the Nationals’ season. Let’s appreciate the fact that the series wasn’t decided by a bad call. Let’s appreciate that an apparent underdog took on two of the best teams in baseball and pulled off a string incredible victories in the face of defeat. I am from Houston and was cheering for my home team in this World Series, but Washington, I ain’t even mad at you. The unbridled joy that Scherzer exuded after the final outs pretty much sealed the deal for me.