The ups and downs of a championship season

The 2019 season that ended with a world championship for Washington began slowly, even before a month-long slump dropped the Nationals – famously in retrospect – to 19-31, the farthest any team had fallen in the wild-card era (since 1995) before eventually winning the World Series.

Surprisingly, given the team’s hot finish, the largest margin between the Nats and the first-place  Braves was 10.5 games on Sept. 14. A more important figure, of course, was how far back the Nats were in the race for a wild card: On May 23, Washington was 8.5 games behind Atlanta, which on that date held the second wild card. Tellingly, only the Marlins, just 1.5 games back of the Nats, had a worse record. Even the next worst team, San Francisco, was three games better than the Nats.

Historically, when the regular season champs advanced to the World Series, the “Miracle” Boston Braves of 1914 were 16 games under .500 on June 8 and 15 games out of first place on July 4. Those Braves won the championship with a four-game sweep of the Philadelphia Athletics.  The 1964 Cardinals were 11 games out of first on Aug. 23 before overtaking the Phils and Reds, then beating the Yankees in a seven-game series.

In the wild-card era, since 1995, two other teams made climbs similar in some ways to the 2019 Nats. The 2003 Marlins, a wild-card team that won the World Serie

parra shark
Gerardo Parra and the baby shark gesture

s, were 15.5 games behind the first-place Braves on July 20 and 10 games under .500 on May 22. The 2011 Cardinals, another wild-card World Series winner, were 8.5 games out of the playoff spot on Sept. 5 with 21 games to play

How did the Nats fall so far, so fast, yet finish so strong?

By beating Colorado on April 23, the 2019 Nationals had managed to split their first 22 games. Losing shortstop Trea Turner to a broken wrist on April 2 certainly contributed to the sluggish start, but the offense at first hardly missed a beat. The Nats scored 40 runs in winning three of four over the Mets and Phillies, April 7-10.

Still, Manger Dave Martinez and General Manager Mike Rizzo already had to be aware of the team’s most glaring weakness: the bullpen. The relievers blew three saves in the Nats’ first seven games. In the eighth game, Washington led 12-1 before the Mets scored five in the seventh and three more in the ninth, forcing the Nats to use closer Sean Doolittle to stop the bleeding. The top off-season additions to the ’pen – Trevor Rosenthal and Kyle Barraclough – couldn’t get the job done.

Another concern: Max Scherzer won just once in his first seven starts. Annibal Sanchez was 0-6 after losing to the Dodgers on May 10. Arm trouble sent Jeremy Hellickson to the injured list. The only good news was that the Nats got Turner back on May 17 after he missed 40 games. The rust showed, however, as his batting average fell as low as .238.

The Nats reached their nadir on Thursday afternoon, May 23, as the Mets completed a four-game sweep at Citi Field. The bullpen had blown three of the four games in New York. The Nats had lost five in a row. The season already was 50 games old. The drumbeat for Martinez to be fired intensified.

The slow climb began at home Friday night against Miami. Needing a fifth starter, Washington had called up Kyle McGowin, a 27-year-old right-hander in his fifth year of pro ball. The results weren’t pretty. The Marlins scored two in first and two in the second. When the Nats tied it in the third, McGowin gave the lead back, yielding a run in the fourth. After Joe Ross gave up three in the top of the fifth, the Nats were down 8-4.

Fortunately, the bats came alive in the final four frames for Washington. Two in the seventh tied the game, 8-8. Again, the bullpen faltered. Curtis Granderson, the only batter Tony Sipp faced, led off the eighth with a double. Then Barraclough allowed two hits, the second of which scored Granderson and put Miami up, 9-8.

But in the bottom of the inning, after two walks, Juan Soto hit a long home run. Matt Adams went back-to-back to put the Nats up 12-9. Doolittle made it interesting by yielding a lead-off homer, followed by a single, before retiring the side in the ninth.

Patrick Corbin followed with a complete game, four-hit, shutout late Saturday afternoon. On Sunday, the Nats had a 9-0 lead after six, thanks to five shutout innings by Eric Fedde. Once again, the bullpen tried to give it away. The Marlins scored two in the eighth before James Bourque, in his only appearance of the season, yielded four more in the ninth. Still, the 9-6 win gave the Nats their first three-game winning streak.

The next afternoon, the bullpen was at it again. Max Scherzer had left his previous start with a 1-0 lead after six, but ended with a no-decision. This time, he led 2-1 after six. The bullpen gave up one in the seventh and one in the eighth. The Marlins hung on to win, 3-2. The Nats headed to Atlanta 10 games under .500.

There, on Tuesday, May 28, Stephen Strasburg won his fifth game, striking out 11 Braves and leaving with a 5-2 lead after seven. Again, the bullpen almost blew it. Barraclough gave up a two-run homer in the eighth. Doolittle gave up a single but struck out the side in the ninth for his 10th save.

The next night, Sanchez finally won a game, yielding just one hit over six shutout innings as the Nats were scoring 14 runs. The night would not have been complete, however, without McGowin yielding four runs in the seventh. Despite that, McGowin’s three innings of relief earned him his first big league save.

After a 9-3 loss in Cincinnati on the 31st, the Nats ended May at 24-33, in fourth place, nine games out of first, four games behind the Mets and just four games ahead of Miami.

The Nationals began to turn their season around the next day by beating the Reds, 5-2 in late Saturday afternoon game. Up by two, Fedde was lifted after giving up a lead-off single in the fifth, but for once, the bullpen notched four shutout innings. Tanner Rainey won his first major league game, beating former National Tanner Roark, the first time, I’d have to believe, that two Tanners were involved a decision.

Washington won the series on Sunday afternoon behind Scherzer’s 15 strikeouts over eight innings, 4-1. The Nats took the next two at home from the White Sox, giving the team its first four-game winning streak. Over the next 10 days, the Nats were treading water, splitting four games with the Padres in San Diego and the next six against the White Sox and the Diamondbacks.

In the June 16 game, Washington matched its season high for runs with a 15-5 pummeling of Arizona. Anthony Rendon hit his 16th homer and Matt Adams hit his eighth and ninth. But the Nats were still five games under .500 at 33-38. With the Phillies coming in for three games, the Nats were finally putting together their hitting and pitching.

Behind Patrick Corbin, the Nats won the first of a day-night twin bill, 6-2. The Scherzer fanned 10 over seven innings in a 2-0 Nats’ win that moved Washington into third place, half a game ahead of the Mets. A 7-4 victory in which the Nats used six pitchers completed the sweep of the Phils.

On Friday night, before a crowd of 34,212, the Nats rallied to beat the Braves, 4-3. The fifth win in a row left Washington a game under .500. A bullpen meltdown on Saturday led to a 13-9 loss to Atlanta. The Nats squandered a 5-1 lead. Rosenthal, Rainey, Ross and Matt Grace gave up nine runs in three innings. After the game, the Nats finally gave up on Rosenthal, who walked the three batters he faced and was released with a 22.74 earned run average.

In 10 innings on Sunday, Atlanta won 4-3, dropping Washington back to three games under .500. A trip to Miami, however, got the Nats back on track. A 6-1 victory behind Scherzer opened the three-game series. Corbin won Wednesday’s game, although Javy Guerra tried to give up a 7-1 lead before Doolittle nailed down the 7-5 victory. Strasburg was shaky but won, 8-5, on Thursday to get the Nats back to .500 at 40-40.  Although a loss in Detroit on Saturday dropped Washington to 41-41, the Nats never fell below .500 again.

The month ended with a pitching duel between Scherzer and longtime National Jordan Zimmermann. Thanks to Rendon’s eighth-inning homer, his 19th, Scherzer came out on top 2-1. (Zimmermann got a no-decision). The Nats finished June 18-8, but the best was yet to come.

Washington began July at home with a walk-off win over the Marlins, thanks to Turner’s ninth inning double. Wins by Strasburg and Sanchez completed a sweep. The Nats lost to the Royals in 10 innings on July 5, after having tied the game with two in the ninth. A 6-0 win behind Scherzer and a 5-2 win on Sunday set things right, even though the Nats wasted Corbin’s seven shutout innings and 11 strikeouts. Scherzer’s win moved the Nats ahead of the Phils into second place. By taking two of three from the Royals, the Nats headed to the All Star break at 47-42, having won 15 of 19 games.

The Nats won 10 of 19 for the rest of July, losing two out of three at home to both the Dodgers and the Braves to end the month. Although Doolittle had four saves, the bullpen lost seven of the nine games. So at the trade deadline, July 31, Rizzo swapped minor leaguers for three relief pitchers: Daniel Hudson from the Blue Jays and both Hunter Strickland and Roenis Elias from the Mariners. Hudson proved to be the key, especially after Doolittle went on the injured list.

Joe Ross got the Nats off to good start in August with his strongest performance of the season. Although Ross walked five, he yielded just one hit, pitching into the sixth. Three relievers retired all eleven batters they faced as Washington won, 3-0.

The next night was a far different story. Strasburg, who came in at 14-4, had his worst outing of the season, charged with nine runs in four and two-thirds innings. With the Diamondbacks up 11-0 after seven, Martinez sent Gerardo Parra to the mound. Four walks, a wild pitch and a hit brought in five runs. Parra left with an ERA of infinity, failing to record an out. Brian Dozier got three out but gave up a double and homer. His ERA was 18.00.

It’s doubtful Rendon’s three-run homer, his 24th, in the ninth was followed by much dugout dancing this night: final: Arizona 18, Washington 7. The loss allowed the Phils to move briefly into a second-place tie with the Nationals.

Sunday wasn’t much better. The Nats rallied twice to tie, but Wander Suero gave up two in the seventh to give the Diamondbacks a 7-5 win.

On to San Francisco, the Nats bounced back to sweep the Giants in three, bookended by solid starts from Erick Fedde and Joe Ross, who each tossed six shutout innings. In between, Sanchez won his seventh decision in a row

After a day off, the Nats carried a 6-3 led to the bottom of the ninth against the Mets. The overworked Doolittle gave up a double and a single before yielding a three-run homer. Three hits later, the Mets walked off with a win. The next night, it was more of the same. Fernando Rodney, a mid-season reclamation project, failed to hold a 3-2 lead in the bottom of the eighth. The Mets won, 4-3. At this point, the Nats were 4 and 4 in August, just six games over .500, half a game ahead of the Mets and a game and half over the Phillies.

Doolittle, however, bounced back to record his 26th save on Sunday as the Nats won 5-3.

The Nationals turned on the burners for the rest of August. The win over the Mets was followed by a three-game sweep of Cincinnati at home. The finale, a 17-7 romp, saw the Nats score the most runs in any game and in any inning all season (10 in the fifth).

Rendon’s eighth inning double brought home the winning run against the Brewers on Friday night, the Nats’ fifth win in a row, putting them 11 games over .500.

The next night, before a crowd just short of 37,000 at Nationals Park, the Nats and Brewers played probably the wildest game of the season for both. Milwaukee struck first, scored five times in the top of the third. The Nats got two back in the bottom half and tied the game at 5 in the fourth. The Brewers countered with one in the fifth and two in the sixth. The Nats scored four in the sixth and two in the seventh.

Washington led 11-8 going to the ninth. Doolittle needed three outs for the save. Instead, he repeated his performance of eight days earlier in New York. A home run, a double and two more homers gave Milwaukee a 12-11 lead.

In the bottom of the ninth (who would have guessed this was a preview of a bigger thing to come!), the Nationals rallied against Brewers closer Josh Hader. Yan Gomes, pinch hitting, walked. Kurt Suzuki doubled. Victor Robles singled to center and advanced to second on a late throw to third. Howie Kendrick was walked intentionally. With the bases loaded and nobody out, the Nats had a golden opportunity for a walk-off win. Hader bore down, however. Turner, Adam Eaton and Rendon all struck out swinging, so the game remained tied at 12.

Neither team scored over the next three innings. In the 13th, Christian Yelich, who had homered in the ninth, did it again, putting the Brewers up, 13-12. The Nats responded in their half, with a sacrifice fly by Robles scoring Asdrubal Cabrera, who had doubled.

Ryan Braun led off the 14th with a walk. Eric Thames followed with a homer off Javy Guerra, the Nats’ ninth pitcher, to give Milwaukee a 15-13 lead. This time, the Nats’ two-out rally fell a run short. Out of position players, Martinez used Ross to pinch hit. With Soto on third, Ross struck out swinging against the Brewers’ 10th pitcher, Junior Guerra.

If having two guys named Tanner on the winning and losing side of a June game wasn’t weird enough, this time both the winner and loser were named Guerra, most likely another first. (They aren’t related.) The game was the Nats’ longest of the season in time – 5:40 – and innings. (The Nats’ shortest game took 2 hours and 15 minute: a 5-0 loss to Zake Greinke in Arizona on June 13.)

The slugging continued on Sunday afternoon. The Nationals scored four in the first, two in the second and seven more in the third. The Brewers put up three in the fifth to make it 11-4, but the Nats answered with two more in the bottom of the inning and another run, their 16th, in the eighth. The Brewers’ four runs in the ninth still left them far behind, losing 16-8.

The Nats’ stayed hot as the team visited Pittsburgh the next night. Joe Ross left the game in the fourth with what proved to be a minor injury, costing him a win as his teammates already were up 11-0. Guerra, McGowin and Rainey completed the shutout, stopping the Pirates in just four hits. The Nats won, 13-0; 43 runs total in three games.

The offense took a day off on Tuesday scoring just once and wasting seven shutout innings by Strasburg. The Pirates scored four off the bullpen in the eighth to win, 4-1. The bats revived the next night, putting the game away with a six-run third. Corbin won his 10th by shutting out the Pirates for eighth. Final: Washington 11, Pittsburgh 1. Rendon’s two RBIs gave him 100.

The Nats took their third of four from the Pirates, 7-1 on Thursday before sweeping the Cubs in Chicago Friday, Saturday and Sunday. The Nats scored two in the 11th to take Sunday’s game.

Back in D.C., the Orioles cooled off the red-hot Nats, winners of 12 of their last 14. Baltimore won, 2-0. The Nats scored five in the first on Wednesday, Aug. 28, and won 8-4. Scherzer, in his second start back from his stint on the injured list, was again on a pitch count and left before finishing the fifth. It was the second time he was denied what looked like an easy win.

On Friday night, the Nats scored twice in the bottom of the ninth to walk off the Marlins, then shut out Miami behind Strasburg on the 31st. Washington completed the sweep on Sept. 1 with a 9-3 win.  August’s 19-7 record was the Nats’ best month of the season.  The Sept. 1 win pushed the Nats to a season-high 19 games over .500 at 77-58 – 5.5 games behind Atlanta but seven games up on the Phillies and 8.5 over the Mets.

The Nats’ walk-off win over the Mets on Tuesday, Sept. 3, was their only victory in the next six games — two losses to New York at home before the Braves took three straight in Atlanta. Scherzer righted the ship on Sunday, Sept. 8 as the Nats won, 9-4. In Minnesota, the Nats took two of three from the power-laden Twins, but Atlanta essentially clinched the division, winning two of three in Washington and pushing the Nats a season–high 10.5 games back, winning 10-1 on Sept. 14. Austin Voth shut the Braves out through five before yielding a tying run in the sixth. Then the bullpen collapsed: Atlanta scored four in the seventh, two in the eighth and three in the ninth. The season long plague continued. A 7-0 win behind Sanchez on Sunday was small consolation.

In St. Louis, the Cards took two of three from the Nats, leaving Washington just a game and a half ahead of the Cubs for the top wild-card spot. Although the Nats took two of three from the Marlins in Miami, another bullpen failure negated seven shutout innings by Strasburg on Sept. 21. Miami scored four in the ninth before a six-run 10th by Washington sealed the win. The next night, the lone Marlins win came as a result of Suero’s sixth blown save. Fortunately, this loss was to be the last bad news of the 2019 season.

The Nats swept the Phillies in a five-game series that began Sept. 23 in D.C., during which Washington knocked Philadelphia out of playoff contention and did the same to the Mets. Meanwhile, the Nats clinched a wild card spot on Sept. 24 for themselves. Too far behind the Braves to catch them, the Nats focused on finishing with the best wild-card record to ensure that they would play the wild-card game at home.

Arriving at Nationals Park for a season–ending series, the Cleveland Indians still had a chance to be the second A.L. wild-card team. The Nats doused those hopes, beating the Indians easily in all three games. Washington finished with a 93-69 record, winning the last eight games in a row.

The Milwaukee Brewers, beginning on Aug. 31, won 21 of 25 games before losing the final three of the season. The Brewers never caught the Nats but clinched the second wild-card spot on Sept. 25 before the season-ending losses. They flew to D.C. from Colorado for the do-or-die playoff on Oct.1.

Before a crowd of nearly 43,000, Scherzer faced off against Brandon Woodruff, who was 11-3 with 143 strikeouts in 121.2 innings. After a lead-off walk, Yasmani Grandal put the Brewers up 2-0 with a homer. Eric Thames took Scherzer deep in the second to put Milwaukee up 3-0. Turner answered with a solo homer in the third. The score held at 3-1 until the bottom of the eighth. Strasburg had taken over for Scherzer in the sixth and stymied the Brewers for three innings.

With Milwaukee’s closer Hader on the mound, Robles struck out leading off. Michael A. Taylor, pinch hitting for Strasburg, was hit in the hand by a 3-2 pitch. The Brewers argued that the pitch hit off the knob of the bat, but the call was upheld after a challenge.

Hader struck out Turner on a high fast ball. Ryan Zimmerman pitch hit for Eaton and hit a broken-bat flare that fell in center to put runners on the corners. Andrew Stevenson pinch ran for Zim. Hader fell behind 3-0 to Rendon before getting a called strike. Rendon fouled one off before taking a 3-2 pitch for ball four.

The count on Soto was 1-1 before he ripped a liner to right. Brewers outfielder Trent Grisham charged hard but let the ball go under his glove as all three runners scored.

Hudson took the mound for the ninth. He struck Thames leading off. Lorenzo Cain line a single to center before Orlando Arcia popped out to Suzuki behind home plate. Pinch hitter Ben Gamel lined out to Robles in center, and the Nats celebrated before getting ready to face the vaunted Dodgers in the division series.

Eleven victories later, a 95-year drought ended with Washington winning the World Series. That’s one championship per century with, we all hope, more to come in this one.

Those 11 wins are worth a post of their own, which I’ll add soon.

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