Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 31, 2019

The Nationals End Washington’s Long Losing Legacy

There is joy in Mudville. From a city’s history of mediocrity with three different franchises, through 95 years without a championship, 86 years since playing for one and more than three decades without any team at all, to repeated postseason heartbreak, a 19-31 start this year and finally, at the end, arguably the most improbable Fall Classic ever, the Washington Nationals are World Series champions.

From first pitch to final out, this year’s World Series can only be fully grasped by those who saw or heard it, whether listening on the radio, watching on television, or, for the most fortunate, in person at the ballpark. A year or two or twenty from now, the box scores will inform readers that the Series went its full seven games, that for the first time in a playoff series that long in any of our major sports, all seven were won by the visiting team, and that in the end victory belonged to the players wearing the “Curly-W.” But in the culmination of a remarkable comeback season, the ebb and flow of this Series, its drama and context, topped by the final fightback of the Wild Card Nationals through two straight elimination games on the road against the team with the best regular season record in the majors, was far too astounding to be adequately told by statistics alone. For the Nats and their fans, as Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter wrote one year before the second team called Senators packed up and began D.C.’s long hiatus from the Great Game, “what a long strange trip it’s been.”

There is of course no direct link between the newly crowned Nationals and that hapless expansion squad that began play one year after the city’s original franchise took flight to Minnesota. Nor is there one to those earlier Senators of Walter Johnson, the team that topped the Giants in the 1924 World Series then lost to them nine years later. And the Lerner family, owners of the Nationals, certainly had nothing to do with baseball’s long interregnum in our nation’s capital that began when the second Senators fled to Texas. But for local fans the three different teams and the decades without games are all of a piece. Together they tell the story of Washington baseball, and it is mostly a tale of misery and doubt.

The arrival of the Nationals from Montreal in 2005 at least ended Washington’s long offseason, but as the Expos the team had done little to distinguish itself, so the well-established pattern of sub-.500 seasons was expected to continue. It was an expectation all too easily met until 2012, when Washington captured the NL East with 98 wins. When the Nats led the Cardinals 7-5 with two outs in the 9th inning of NLDS Game 5, cheering fans were on their feet at Nationals Park, ready to experience postseason success.

The cheers died that night, as St. Louis scored four times to steal the game and the series. Similar early round playoff agony returned in 2014 against San Francisco, 2016 against Los Angeles, and 2017 against Chicago. Along with cooler temperatures and falling leaves, disappointment arrived every autumn.

When this year’s roster fell to twelve games under .500 in late May, playoff baseball was the last concern for most fans. Then from the depths of late spring the Nationals rallied to play as well as any team in the majors over the next four months, eventually capturing one of the NL’s two Wild Card spots. But staying in the fight was one thing; finishing it meant replacing the franchise’s postseason history with a new narrative.

Instead the familiar story seemed to be playing out when Milwaukee led the Wild Card tilt 3-1 in the 8th, with Washington down to its final four outs. That’s when it became the Nationals’ turn for late inning heroics, loading the bases before Juan Soto stroked a single to right that cleared them, giving Washington its first lead of the game, and the only one it needed. Then the Nats won two more elimination games against the Dodgers in the NLDS, the final one, in that series’ decisive Game 5, by again overcoming a 3-1 deficit with a pair of 8th inning runs to tie and four more in the top of the 10th to win.

After finally earning an easy series, a four game sweep of the Cardinals in the NLCS, Washington met Houston in what will forever be known as one of the strangest World Series ever. It was collectively taut even as the individual games were mostly lopsided. While the Series went seven games, the average margin was five runs, with only one contest decided by less than three. There was the incredible inability of either team to win at home, a pattern that once established fans on both sides surely believed would end every night. That pattern meant the Nationals jumped out to a two games to none lead in Houston, beating the two pitchers who will likely top the AL Cy Young voting, only to be thrashed three straight times at home. So it was back to Minute Maid Park, with no margin for error.

Once there, Washington overcame another early deficit and rode the right arm of Stephen Strasburg to a 7-2 win in Game 6, setting up the final showdown. In Game 7 Max Scherzer was heroic, bending but not breaking through five frames, but Zach Greinke was magnificent for the Astros, holding the Nats to just two hits through the first six innings. It was getting late, and the Nationals were once again behind and seemingly overmatched. Until, with breathtaking suddenness, they weren’t.

With only eight outs to go, Anthony Rendon stroked a long homer to left, cutting the Astros 2-0 lead in half. One at-bat later, a walk to Soto, Greinke was pulled by Houston manager A.J. Hinch, giving Astros fans a debate topic for the winter.

That was made certain when Howie Kendrick sent reliever Will Harris’s second pitch soaring down the right field line where it bounced off the foul pole for a two-run homer and the lead, the loud clank heralding the turning of the tide. The Nationals added another run in the 8th and two more in the 9th, while Patrick Corbin and Daniel Hudson held Houston at bay. When Hudson got Michael Brantley to flail at a slow slider for the final out, a new and far better chapter in D.C.’s baseball history was written, as the Washington Nationals finished the fight. Joy, joy, joy – at long last there is joy in Mudville.

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