Nationals complete season turnaround with first World Series title

Stephen Strasbourg pitching for the Nats
Photo of Ricky Dimon

Ricky Dimon

MLB

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Since graduating from Davidson (The College That Stephen Curry Built), I have been writing about sports--just about any and all you can think of!--and coaching tennis in Atlanta, Ga. Beyond the four major sports, I am an avid tennis fan and cover the ATP Tour on a daily basis. If I'm not busy writing, you can generally find me on a tennis court or traveling the world wherever a sporting event takes me.

Saying a championship team got hot at the right time is one of the oldest clichés in sports. It’s true, of course. But it’s always true. No team has never not been hot at the right time while winning a title.

The Washington Nationals won their first World Series on Wednesday, putting the exclamation point on an improbable and dramatic playoff run. They played their best baseball in October; there is no doubt about that. But the question is not how the Nationals played above and beyond their capabilities to pull off upset after upset of the Los Angeles Dodgers (NLDS) and Houston Astros (World Series). They were always capable of such performances. The question is how they could possibly have been so bad throughout the first third of the season.

Not lacking for talent

Even without Bryce Harper, who signed with the Philadelphia Phillies during the offseason, it’s not like this club was comprised of misfit toys. Third baseman Anthony Rendon, first baseman Ryan Zimmerman, and shortstop Trea Turner were already proven forces at the plate. Huge things were expected of up-and-coming outfielder Juan Soto, as well. Right-handers Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg were joined in a daunting rotation by lefty Patrick Corbin, who won 25 games in the previous two seasons with the Arizona Diamondbacks and compiled 3.15 ERA in 2018.

This team had every reason to be good. But for 50 games, it definitely wasn’t.

Starting slow

Rendon missed 14 games in the first month and half after getting hit by a pitch on his left elbow. Soto was sidelined from eight games in early May due to a back problem. Turner missed almost all of April and half of May because of a broken finger. Scherzer was saddled with a 4.55 ERA in April before compiling a 2.37 ERA in May, a 1.00 ERA in June, and a 2.25 ERA in July. Strasburg did not really get rolling until mid-June, when he touched off a streak in which he won seven starts in a row. The Nationals also had the worst bullpen in baseball during the first half of the regular season, perhaps the biggest reason why they were 19-31 at one point. After turning things around to the extent that they were buyers at the trade deadline, Hunter Strickland helped shore up the reliever corps in August and Daniel Hudson was one of the anchors of the ‘pen for the remainder of the regular season and the playoffs.

Turning it around

The talent was always there; the simple fact it a lot of it was either injured and/or getting off to a slow start out of the gates. And it did not all of a sudden come together in the playoffs. After going 19-31 through 50 contests, the Nats went 74-38 over their final 112. For those counting, 74-39 would be the equivalent of a 106-56 record over the course of a full season. By comparison, only the Astros (107-55) and Dodgers (106-56) were better from start to finish than Washington was from late May through September…and obviously through October, as well.

As good as the Nationals were, they still faced plenty of adversity in the postseason. And probably thanks to their 19-31 record, they were more than prepared to deal with it. The Nats came back from a 3-1 deficit in the eighth inning of the National League wild-card game against the Milwaukee Brewers to win 4-3; they erased a 3-0 deficit going into the sixth inning of Game 5 in the NLDS at L.A. and triumphed 7-3 in 10; they took the final two games of the World Series in Houston after losing three straight at home—including Game 7 by a 7-2 margin after trailing 2-0 in the seventh. (At least we got the over correct!)

To be sure, it was a remarkable playoff run. Perhaps people should have seen it coming when October began instead of until one day before October ended.

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