“IMPROBABLE” rebroadcast tonight in its entirety! What is improbable?

Graphic from Nationals graphic department

Last weekend, the Washington Nationals in-house video production crew aired their documentary in two parts over two nights entitled “IMPROBABLE”, and tonight at 7 p.m. ET, they will re-air the documentary in its entirety in one part over three hours. For a Nats fan, this should be required viewing in order to keep your “fan card” valid. Is the documentary perfect? No, but it is darn good as it shows some video and interviews that had not seen before. 

Through MLB Productions, we were able to see their interpretation of a documentary about the World Series teams. It did not focus on the improbable run, and spent a lot of time being neutral as you would expect to reach a larger audience. This Curly W Production piece is all about the Nats.

Two of our TalkNats readers had a Twitter discussion (above) at the lowpoint of the Nats season on  May 23, 2019. She kind of named the documentary on that day I believe “highly improbable”. At that point in time, she just sounded like a crazy person. The Nationals bullpen was historically bad at that mark with a 7.02 ERA. No team had ever made the postseason with an ERA that high at the 50-game point in a season. That is what made it so highly improbable.

Actually the lowpoint of the season had to be on May 24th when the Nationals were losing 8-4 to the Marlins with a loss expectancy of 89%. Kyle McGowin was a spot starter for the Nats when the team was mired in a 5-game losing streak while the Marlins were enjoying a 6-game winning streak. It was like a reversal of fortune until lightening struck in the form of Juan Soto with the Nats losing in the 8th inning, Soto crushed a 100 mph pitch from Tayron Guerrero for a 3-run home run and the lead in the game. From that point forward, these were the come-from-behind Nats. Soto, of course, had a few of these moments during the season like his dramatic extra innings bomb over the foul pole to beat the Phillies, and his bases clearing single against Josh Hader in the Wild Card game was legendary. But there was also the blown-save bomb Soto delivered against Clayton Kershaw in the 8th inning of the decisive Game 5 NLDS that set-up Howie Kendrick‘s heroics in the 10th inning to win it.

All of the improbable moments did not belong to Soto. You could point to at least twenty players who contributed to WPA (win-probability-added) like the seven walk-offs during the season of which two were in the first week of the season with a Trea Turner home run and a Jake Noll walk-off walk. Turner actually had two walk-off home runs, but there was no win more improbable than the September 3rd walk-off grand slam from Kurt Suzuki that turned a 10-4 deficit in the 9th inning to a 11-10 winner against the Mets. With one-out in the bottom of the 9th inning the Nats loss probability was 99.22%.

The improbable happened when Trea Turner, Anthony Rendon, Juan Soto, and Ryan Zimmerman were all on the injured-list at the same time at one point in May which was exactly one half of the position players on the Opening Day starting lineup! That created an opening, and the Nats signed a veteran viejo who was just cut loose in early May. That magic man was Gerardo Parra. His grand slam against the Dodgers on May 11th was the difference between the team being 15-24 or 16-23. Who knows what would have happened if the Nats lost that game during the dark days of May.

Of course, there was the off-season acquisition after the 2018 season of the most coveted starting free agent pitcher. The Nats bagged the prize in the form of left-handed pitcher Patrick Corbin for the sum of $140 million. With Max Scherzer ($210 million), Stephen Strasburg ($355 million), and Anibal Sanchez ($19 million), the Nationals are only a $276 million pitcher away from a $1 billion rotation. Of course to pull off the improbable, you do need to invest wisely, and the Nationals stayed under the CBT salary cap for the 2019 season as general manager Mike Rizzo and the Lerner ownership group adeptly spent to solidify the roster to compete every year since 2011 when it was clear the franchise meant business with the acquisition of Jayson Werth.

Corbin had a 2.91 ERA through his first nine starts of 2019, and the team had a 6-3 in those starts while the rest of the staff combined had a poor 11-22 record. The Nationals easily could have sat with their hands in their pockets waiting on Bryce Harper to make a decision on whether he was going to take the Nationals offer and let Corbin go to another team. But the team’s brain trust went to Fiola Mare in Georgetown to make their pitch, to Corbin and his newlywed wife Jen, early in the free agent process. Maybe it was all about the money as the Nats clearly offered Corbin the most money, but there were many who thought he was a lock for Philadelphia or New York. Yes, the rumor was apparently true that Corbin’s younger brother, Kevin, pleaded for his brother to sign with the Yankees in his best man’s speech at Patrick and Jen’s wedding before he signed with the Nats.

Pictured is Kevin Corbin delivering a best man’s speech at Patrick & Jen’s wedding reception while wearing a Yankees cap; photo screengrab from Jen Corbn’s social media

As strategic as the acquisitions of Corbin, Sanchez, and Parra were for this team, the Nationals went off the grid at the trade deadline on July 31st and acquired Daniel Hudson as a set-up man to bolster the bridge to Sean Doolittle.

What made the 2019 Washington Nationals World Series win highly improbable was the poor bullpen. They finished the season with some awful bullpen stats of a 5.68 ERA, 33 losses and 29 blown-saves. There were eight relievers who had ERAs north of double-digits and twenty-seven relievers used in 2019 which at times seemed like open auditions when journeymen were signed off of the scrap heap. They all got World Series rings, but there is no “Improbable” documentary if they were just league average with 24 blown-saves as too many happened in those first 50 losses.

So what did manager Dave Martinez do in the postseason to neutralize the team’s biggest negative into a positive? He basically only used Hudson, Doolittle, Corbin, Strasburg, and Scherzer in the highest leverage spots in the postseason. Martinez was the first Nats manager since Davey Johnson in 2012 who understood that the save might be in the 7th inning when he turned to Jordan Zimmermann in relief in a  1-1 tie in an elimination game which was won via a Werth walk-off home run later. Unfortunately for Johnson, he didn’t have a Doolittle to go with his Hudson (Tyler Clippard). It proved fatal to that 2012 team because Johnson was not given the personnel that his successors so often had, but Martinez certainly did more with less than Dusty Baker who had the “law firm” in 2017.

In the fictional movie “Draft Day”, Jennifer Garner’s character often had some philosophical lines like “sometimes the correct path is the tortured one.” The tortured path aka the bumpy road had landed Martinez in the hospital during a game in September, and he needed a cardiac catheterization to get him better. “I was so scared,” Martinez would say upon his return. And after the World Series, he was cured, and that bumpy road led to a beautiful place.

“This right here, and you guys, cured my heart. I’m good. Tonight I will celebrate with my boys because we are the world champions!” Martinez said in triumph.

To critique the documentary, I just was soured at the first minute as they rolled through stats and records and said the Nationals odds of making the postseason was 22% with the 19-31 record, but 22% is not improbable even though there might be a stats-maker who printed that. Don’t believe it. BaseballReference.com had the Nats odds at 3.4% which seemed about right, but with that ghastly bullpen ERA of 7.02, the odds seemed longer.

Not since the 2005 season, when the Astros were 17-31, has a team with lower odds gone to the World Series, and in a footnote, those Astros of 2005 were swept in four games. The Nats and the 1914 Boston Braves are the only teams who were ever 12-games under .500 to win a World Series in the 150+ years of organized baseball, but that Braves team won their 8-team division and went straight to the World Series. Back in 1914, there was no playoffs. The Nats had 5 elimination games to win, and they were behind in each one.

Not only was there the Soto hit off of Hader, but what about the other inches that changed the complexion of games like the ball Joc Pederson hit with bases loaded in Game 4 of the NLDS that was foul by inches and challenged. Then there was the Game 5 Will Smith smash to rightfield that his teammates thought was a walk-off home run to win the series but the ball died at the fence and was caught by Adam Eaton. The “Improbable” documentary missed the opportunity to show those close calls that could have stabbed the Nats in the heart, and there was the George Springer double in the first game of the World Series in the 8th inning that missed going over the wall by inches to tie the game and was instead a double.

That Soto single that cleared the bases and whatever you believe happened to that baseball when it met the turf in front of the Brewers’ right fielder, Trent Grisham, is part of the lore. If you believe in the baseball gods, maybe it was just the Nats time. From the challenged hit-by-pitch on Michael A. Taylor to Ryan Zimmerman‘s broken bat blooper to Rendon’s walk to set-up Soto’s bases clearing single — it had all of the elements of the game of inches.

“That ball is an inch foul, and it could have been an inch fair,” said Max Scherzer about that key Joc Pederson shot down the line in game 4 of the NLDS.

A game of inches, bounces, and split-seconds. A game of luck and a game of skill.

“In the playoffs, you have to get a couple lucky bounces,” said  Zimmerman before the 2019 postseason. “I’ve seen it the other way where the other team gets a couple lucky bounces go their way. It’s a wacky game.”

Baseball is all about inches and fractions of an inch. A ball meeting the barrel of a bat changes direction, angles, and velo depending on where the point of contact is made. If Will Smith’s contact point was a milimeter lower, it is a walk-off home run.

That vision needed to be in the documentary which still had enough high points where you wanted to stand up and cheer, and a point where you got a little misty eyed. It could have used a sabrematrician character like Jared Jussim playing Dicky Fox in the movie Jerry Maguire who could explain anything. We needed a sabrematrician to explain just how improbable the odds of Howie Kendrick’s game winning home run in Game 7 of the World Series was in order to be hit at that 26.61° launch angle with a negative oppo bat angle to stay fair but also have the 336.19 foot distance to be a home run just off of the 326 foot foul pole with an exit velo of 97.99 mph. Kendrick’s home run presently ranks 10th all-time with a cWPA of 34.8%, which means with that one swing Kendrick increased the Nats’ win probability by almost 35 percent. That is just part of the improbability of it all. The “CLANG” heard ’round the world.

“I’ve seen [Will Harris] a few times. He’s gotten me out every time,” Kendrick said. “I think he struck me out every time I faced him. At our place, he threw me a cutter away like that, I took it, and I was just looking for something out over the plate I could hammer … and man, that was probably one of the best swings of my career, just like that grand slam [in Los Angeles]. Moments like that, you can’t make those up.”

In the documentary, we got to hear from Harris who gave up that fateful home run to Kendrick because Harris now plays for the Nats. He threw a good pitch that Howie just got enough of.

For me, I wanted to see someone unearth the area in rightfield where Soto’s ball seemingly changed directions that some have called a bounce, a hop, and divine intervention. Did it hit a hardened piece of gum, a divot, or a sprinkler head or was it just “English” on the ball or maybe just an optical illusion that Grisham just misplayed it.

In a documentary, you are documenting history, and in this case had an opportunity to dig deep for a possible answer. Grisham made no excuses after the game.

“It’s going to sting for a long time,” Grisham said. “Essentially gifting the Nationals a divisional berth, it’s going to hurt, and I expect it to hurt when I really kind of debrief and go into my offseason.”

Maybe the Nats win that game without the error as the game would have been tied most likely on the single as there were bases loaded, but who knows. The sting got worse as the Brewers traded Grisham shortly after the season. The rookie was filling in for reigning MVP Christian Yelich who was injured before the season ended. Maybe the Brewers thought it was best to send Grisham to another team. Blame is spread in every tough loss. Usually it falls on the manager, but Drew Storen can tell you how his 2012 blown-save in Game 5 of the NLDS changed him as a player. But maybe the cosmic tumblers aligned in 2019 for the Nats.

“It was our time,” Zimmerman told a story that was told to him by ex-teammate Mike Morse when he won the World Series with the Giants. “Tim Flannery said ‘sometimes it’s just your time. Baseball chooses when it’s your time.’ We beat two teams that had 107 wins or whatever it was.”

In 2012 to May 23rd of 2019, it was not the Nationals time, but then something changed.

“You have a great year, and you can run into a buzz saw,” Strasburg said. “Maybe this year we’re the buzz saw.”

The Nats were the buzz saw although sometimes they seemed to be a chain saw cutting into a gigantic sequoia. Actually, the Astros won 107 games and the Dodgers won 106 games in the regular season. They were both behemoths. It was like cutting down two sequoias. The Dodgers had existed since 1884 and never won more than 106 games before, and the Astros had never won 107 games before. It seemed to be a foregone conclusion that the 2019 World Series was going to be the Astros hosting the Dodgers. But it is a good thing we play the games. The Dodgers won 73 games from May 24th to the end of the season and the Nationals won 74. Maybe the Nats just were not getting the respect they deserved, but everything still made the perfect setting for “Improbable” and the documentary.

Until Hudson’s back-foot slider recorded the strikeout for the final out in the 2019 World Series, Nats fans had only seen their beloved team lose the final postseason game. All of the past failures made winning in 2019 that much sweeter, and 19-31 will forever be etched in the history books.

“Improbabe” can be seen on MASN as well as on Nationals.com at 7 p.m. ET followed by the ring event and a Dan Kolko after-party.

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