Baseball fans in Washington D.C. were 95-years in waiting for a World Series championship. You had to go back to 1924 to Walter Johnson‘s Senators for the only D.C. baseball championship. That all changed in 2019, and next year — Johnson’s championship turns 100. Can you believe it has been exactly four years since the Washington Nationals won the World Series! Savor it, enjoy it. They do not happen often — even when you spend so much money that you blow through the CBT cap to win. It took a good team with incredible chemistry and veteran leadership along with some youthful exuberance and some divine intervention from the baseball gods. The “CLANG” heard ’round the world was courtesy of Howie Kendrick, and that put the final
clang exclamation mark on it.
As improbable as 2019 was from going from 19-31 to hoisting the “piece of metal” that the World Champs get, the assembling of that team had many new players that were not part of that 2017 team that could not make it out of the NLDS — and many considered that 2017 team with Bryce Harper, Daniel Murphy, Gio Gonzalez, and Jayson Werth to be the best assembled by general manager Mike Rizzo. That team busted through the cap and in 2018 they were over the cap even after they traded off several veteran players. Plus two-thirds of the trio of bullpen arms they dubbed, “The Law Firm” were gone.
The 2019 team added Patrick Corbin as their most substantial acquisition and a bunch of fill-ins as the team absolutely was committed to staying under the CBT cap, and those first 50-games of 2019 were painful — both figuratively as well as literally when Trea Turner broke two fingers in April and Rendon was down at the same time with an injury. But it was the guy named Howard Joseph Kendrick who got all of two at-bats in that 2017 NLDS that bewildered so many Nats fans. His new manager, Dave Martinez, believed in him — and that confidence for the 35 year old paid off in the 2019 NLDS as well as the World Series as Kendrick recorded game winning RBIs in the final games of each of those series for the 2019 Nats.
That is the thing about baseball — you just never know. After the disappointment of the 2018 season, the jury was still out on the Nationals manager who many said would be haunted by the curse of Dusty Baker. 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.
The back of the bullpen was built with Sean Doolittle who was the only returning member from “The Law Firm” and it was his second full season with the Nationals. Rizzo added reclamation players like Trevor Rosenthal and Kyle Barraclough to the bullpen and it was a disaster. Who could forget agent Scott Boras holding a tryout for Rosenthal who was returning from TJ surgery and the Nats paid up $8 million for a reliever dubbed Mr. Infinity because you technically don’t have an ERA until you get a batter out. It took Rosey a total of five appearances before he recorded an out — and he finished that game with a 72.00 ERA.
Rizzo sort of replaced Harper’s production in WAR (wins over replacement) by a healthy Adam Eaton at one corner and Juan Soto at the other. Rizzo went with a sizable upgrade at the catcher position where the struggling Matt Wieters was replaced by Kurt Suzuki and Yan Gomes. But Riz was also betting that Rosenthal, Barraclough, and Brian 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! Only Dozier stuck on the roster for the full season — and he was relegated to the bench.
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 a gamble when other alternatives were available. Rosey and Bear Claw would not survive the season as both were sent packing. 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. Dozier was replaced by Asdrubal Cabrera who was acquired off of waivers, but that demotion never seemed to dampen Dozier’s spirits. His 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. 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 in the clubhouse.
“[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.”
There were winning streaks. Negativity turned into positivity. 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. This 2019 team had an existing group of veterans led by Max Scherzer and Ryan Zimmerman plus 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.
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. 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 put out their own documentary entitled “IMPROBABLE” in two parts. This was not the same MLB Production documentary that debuted in December. While the MLB Production was not centered on the Nationals and opened in the kitchen of Astros’ shortstop Carlos Correa before the first game of the World Series, “IMPROBABLE” was all about the Nats even though 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, Stephen Strasburg, and Anthony Rendon can tell you, the multiple failures of 2012-2018 factored into making this look back so much sweeter.
Remember where you were four years ago. Do you know in the past 10-years there has only been one team to win twice as a World Champion? That seems to be a lot of parity or bad luck as the postseason is certainly a crapshoot to win.