With yesterday’s 20th win of 2021, the Washington Nationals will avoid any chance of reaching the 19-31 record this year. The Nats entered that day on May 24, 2019 with a 19-31 record. They began a weekend series with the Miami Marlins. Unfortunately, the Nats were lifeless to start the game and spot-starter Kyle McGowin was torched for 5 runs in 4.0 innings. The Nats fell behind 8-4 in the top of the 5th inning and staring at a 19-32 record until Juan Soto flipped the page in the 8th inning and hit a 3-run home run to put the Nats up for the first time in the game. The Nats eventually won it and their improbable stretch started — and they never looked back.
How many times did Juan Soto save the 2019 season? Most remember his Wild Card heroics and the World Series home runs, but what if he didn’t come through on May 24, 2019? The 2021 team is still waiting for the dominating Soto to show up this season, and we all know how Soto can do big things like his walk-off single on Opening Day of this year. Patience grasshopper.
After the disappointment of the 2018 season, the jury was still out on Nationals manager Dave Martinez. Some gave him a “rookie” pass for an 82-80 season and stunts like bringing camels to spring training camp to signify the Nats needed to get over the proverbial hump. In some regards, the roster that general manager Mike Rizzo built for the 2019 season was not as good as the 2018 roster and certainly not the best roster in Nats history. But of course it is open for debate.
The back of the bullpen of that 2019 team was built with Sean Doolittle who was returning for his second full season with the Nationals and reclamation players like Trevor Rosenthal and Kyle Barraclough were added in the off-season.
There were three key holes in the roster when departed stars from 2018, and years before that, like Bryce Harper, Daniel Murphy, and Gio Gonzalez were all gone. They were ostensibly replaced by rookie Victor Robles, struggling veteran Brian Dozier, and top free agent pitcher Patrick Corbin. The team was also set to get Howie Kendrick back from his achilles injury but nobody knew what to expect for him. Of course we found out in the World Series that Kendrick would be the difference in the end.
Rizzo sort of replaced Harper’s production in WAR (wins over replacement) by adding several players including a sizable upgrade at catcher where the struggling Matt Wieters was replaced by Kurt Suzuki and Yan Gomes. It was a bold move by Rizzo to not try to replace Harper with just one player — but with several in the theory that the sum of the parts were greater than the whole.
But Riz was also betting that Rosenthal, Barraclough, and Dozier would all be better than what they were in the prior year, and in Rosenthal’s case — he didn’t even play in the 2018 season as he was recovering from Tommy John surgery!
Rizzo went big risks equals big rewards with the acquisitions of Rosenthal, Barraclough, and Dozier, and it was mostly disastrous. Not only did Rosenthal and Dozier add $16 million to the payroll, they were gambles when other alternatives were available.
Rosenthal finally recorded an out in his 5th appearance of 2019 and his ERA of infinity finally had a whole number of 72.00. Yes, that was his ERA at the time. That is the equivalent of giving up 8 runs per inning in a 9-inning game if you want the math there. Rosy and Bear Claw would not survive as both were sent packing mid-season. The warning signs were there in Spring Training, we were sounding the alarms before the 2019 season started as there were signs of trouble that we wrote about.
With Dozier, he had his moments of glory and finished the season with a WAR of +1.6. He was relegated to the bench after Asdrubal Cabrera was acquired off of waivers, but that demotion never seemed to dampen his spirits. Dozier’s greatest value to the team was perhaps that he was a treasured teammate and a fan favorite and his fluency in Spanish bridged a normal divide in clubhouses between American and Latino players.
But everything wasn’t rosy in April and May. Martinez’s head was on the chopping block and if the Washington Post had their way as judge, jury, and executioner, Martinez was as good as gone in late May. The reason I wasn’t on the “Fire Davey” bandwagon at 50-games was that my sources said Davey still had the support of the players.
“[Davey] is very loyal to the players,“ Ryan Zimmerman said. “He understands that some years are going to start slow, some years are going to start fast. A lot of people, their first instinct [during difficult stretches] is to fire someone. But none of them have a plan to do anything after that. You play for six months, and there’s no way everything’s going to be great for those six months. And I think when people panic, it makes it worse.”
When you lose the clubhouse like Matt Williams in 2015, it is usually a bad sign for the manager. Sure, Martinez made plenty of mistakes in April and May, but was he to blame for an horrific bullpen with a 7.05 ERA on May 23rd? Was it Davey’s fault that Trea Turner broke his finger four games into the season or Anthony Rendon got hit on his elbow by a pitch or that Juan Soto had back spasms or Ryan Zimmerman had a flare-up of his plantar fasciitis or Anibal Sanchez pulled a leg muscle? No. At one point in May, the Nationals were missing all four of those position players. I once called the lineups something you see in a split-squad game in Spring Training — that wasn’t a negative — that was a fact!
“People ignored that we had a significant portion of our roster injured [in April and May],” Rizzo said.
Still, all teams have injuries and find a way to win, and the Nationals in a significant series from May 21-May 23, with most of their players healthy, got swept by the Mets and lost three games in the bullpen to drop to 19-31 on the season. I wrote about that lowpoint of the season in a piece entitled, The Rollercoaster of Ineptitude. I did not call for firing Martinez or Rizzo at that point. But if that poor style of play continued, it was probably inevitable after pitching coach, Derek Lilliquist, was fired earlier in the month. Again, the players were supporting Davey, and one player told me his feelings on where they were.
“We are a winning streak away,” a player who wanted to remain anonymous told me. “We just need a long winning streak to get back into this.”
While there were anonymous quotes during May of 2019, there wasn’t the normal tone of negativity that some in the media have felt in the past that they needed to write about, and, unfortunately, negativity sells newspapers. Sure, there was frustration at losing some winnable games — there just wasn’t the anonymous airing of dirty laundry to the media -or- if there was — it wasn’t reported.
“What I’m proud of is you didn’t hear one player pointing fingers [during the May losing streak],” Rizzo said. “There was no anonymous quotes about anything. There were no clubhouse lawyers. That start just galvanized us and put a chip on our shoulder and gave us an ‘us against the world’ mentality. And it was something we really embraced. Everybody got healthy at about that time, and we took off.”
Maybe “los viejos” were a reason for a more cohesive clubhouse. There were veteran guys like Jayson Werth, Bryce Harper, Tanner Roark, and Gio Gonzalez who were all gone, and there were always whispers that some of them would talk to the press anonymously, but it was Werth who went on record and was at the center of the Matt Williams clubhouse dysfunction controversy of 2015. This 2019 team had a new set of veterans like Howie Kendrick, Anibal Sanchez, Fernando Rodney, Brian Dozier, Gerardo Parra and Patrick Corbin, and they were preaching to stay the course. Instead of pressing, they went in the opposite direction and were celebrating home runs and victories while not dwelling on the losses.
As the team got deeper in the playoffs we started to hear from guys like Kendrick who gave a lot of credit to Davey for knowing how & when to defer to his veterans. He regularly gave them the locker room to let them build a long-term leadership presence. We have a great skipper.
— Cap The Hill (@CapTheHill) May 23, 2020
Going from 19-31 to a World Series win, and finish the regular season plus the postseason at 105-74 is amazing when you think about no team in the last 100 years has ever won a World Series when they were at least 12-games under .500 at any point in the regular season. It was improbable, and the Nationals had a 3.4% chance of making the postseason and less than 0.1% chances of winning the World Series after the game on May 23rd according to Baseball-Reference.com.
The Nationals in-house video production group known as Curly W Productions produced their own documentary entitled “IMPROBABLE” in two parts. This was not the same MLB Production documentary that debuted in December 2019. While the MLB Production was not centered on the Nationals, it opened in the kitchen of Astros’ shortstop Carlos Correa before the first game of the World Series. “IMPROBABLE” was nearly 100 percent Nats even though it included the journey from the lowest point on May 23rd straight to the World Series victory.
Sometimes you appreciate the top of the summit more when the climb was the toughest. That was the 2019 Washington Nationals, but as Ryan Zimmerman and Stephen Strasburg, can tell you, the failures of 2012-2018 factored into making this look down from the top so much sweeter.