Halftime Sports

An Ode to Washington’s Nationals

November 7, 2019

I’m not even kidding when I say that there are exactly three people who caused the Nationals to win the World Series: Joe Paquette, Nico Bocock, and the girl wearing a José Lobatón jersey at Wednesday night’s watch party.

Okay, maybe I’m kidding a little bit.

I mostly wrote that first bit just to talk about José Lobatón. But I wanted to highlight the wonderful fans that braved the constant, annoying rain to watch Game 7 at Nationals Park. I went with five other friends: my three roommates, Joe, and Nico. I bring them up because the turning point in the game was when Joe and Nico left our seats to get food. As they were in line, the Nationals scored three runs in the seventh before they got back to our seats. It wasn’t even a question where they would spend the rest of the game: they watched from the top steps of our section. It’s the little things like staying in the same seats that make this fanbase so wonderful. Remembering old backup catchers like José Lobatón is what makes this fanbase wonderful. Booing the grade-A A-hole who, among other offenses, brought Lindsey Graham to a ballgame instead of his children is what makes this fanbase so wonderful. These Nationals did it not only for the fans, but for the players that came before them. May we neve forget their names.

Brian Schneider. Nick Johnson. José Vidro. Cristian Guzmán. Vinny Castilla. Brad Wilkerson. Ryan Church. José Guillén. Terrmel Sledge. Liván Hernández. Chad Cordero. Alfonso Soriano. Dmitri Young. Lastings Milledge. John Lannan. Jesús Flores. Odalis Pérez. Nyjer Morgan. Elijah Dukes. Adam Dunn. These are the players who crawled so today’s Nationals could fly.

Those first 11 names were some of the most outstanding characters on the original Nationals of 2005: the beloved, bizarre team who couldn’t lose in June and couldn’t win after the All-Star Break. The bridge from that team to today’s squad is of course, Ryan Zimmerman. O Captain, My Captain! Washington’s Nationals finally returned the favor to the man who picked up the team during their darkest days. Injuries have taken their toll on the Z-Man in the last several seasons, and yet the team picked him up during these frustrating times. Not only have they picked him up on the field, they’ve picked him up in the locker room as well.

In past years, the Nationals were not exactly known for team chemistry in the dugout. Today, the situation is very different. For me, the difference boils down to the veteran Latino players on the team. They have brought an infectious joy that’s allowed the team to be loose throughout the year, even early in the season when they couldn’t save a ball game if their lives depended on it. More than anyone else, these are the guys that preached manager Davey Martinez’s message to go 1-0 every day. Gerardo Parra, Aníbal Sánchez, Asdrúbal Cabrera, and Fernando Rodney are the leaders of the clubhouse that stand out the most. They may not be household names, but they have much to do with these Nationals believing that they’re among the league’s best when they get healthy. Also, I’ve been listening to Cabrera’s walk-up song on repeat since Game 7, and it’s straight fire.

Thank you to our Latino leaders.

Juan Soto is a national treasure.

Of course, it wasn’t just the veteran guys who brought joy to the team and performed at a high level. Looking up and down this lineup, the Nationals were teeming with stars: Trea Turner and Adam Eaton set the table at the top of the order, Anthony Rendon turned in an MVP performance offensively and defensively, Juan Soto was the best under-21 hitter since Ted Williams, Howie Kendrick had the finest season of his career, Victor Robles was the top defender in center field despite what the Gold Glove voters say, and Kurt Suzuki came up clutch time and time again. The pitching staff was among the league’s best: Max Scherzer snarled and grunted his way to yet another Cy Young-worthy season, Stephen Strasburg stood tall all year and overwhelmed hitters with his off-speed stuff, and Patrick Corbin wiped out hitters who knew his slider was coming and couldn’t lay off. 

With all that talent, GM Mike Rizzo knew that eventually the winning would happen. Rizzo stayed the course and trusted his guys to get the job done, and he had that faith because he’s seen it before. He always talked about how he wanted to mold this team in the image of the 2001 Arizona Diamondbacks, and the comparisons are striking. It starts with the rotation: Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg are today’s analogs to Randy Johnson and that other guy. Look up and down the lineups and you’ll see both teams littered with Viejos. A shaky bullpen rounds out the comparison that took Rizzo ten years to build, and they trusted that a few relievers (Doolittle and Hudson) would get hot down the stretch.

Thank you, Riz.

Aníbal Sánchez, a key Viejo.

The Viejos helped manager Davey Martinez persuade the young guys to see the vision through. At 19-31, it was obvious that things had to change: bullpen ERA north of 7, no run support, blah, blah, blah. What was harder to see was that things would inevitably change. Here’s an actual lineup the Nationals rolled out on May 5th:

  1. Victor Robles, CF/R
  2. Wilmer Difo, 3B/S
  3. Adam Eaton, RF/L
  4. Kurt Suzuki, C/R
  5. Brian Dozier, 2B/R
  6. Andrew Stevenson, LF/L
  7. Carter Kieboom, SS/R
  8. Jake Noll, 1B/R
  9. Aníbal Sánchez, P/R

Not a bad lineup for Double-A Harrisburg. Not a good lineup in the major leagues. Of course they were going to lose games when the injuries piled up early in the year. Once they got their All-World talents back, nobody was standing in the way of these Nationals. Martinez understood this and remained the same in the clubhouse every day: relentlessly optimistic, full of seemingly tired cliches that kept playing out over the course of the season.

“Go 1-0 today.”

“Put together good at-bats.”

“When you put the ball in play, good things happen.”

And most importantly: “When you’re done playing professionally, you’re gonna wish you had more fun.”

These Nationals had fun, all right. Starting in June, they danced in the dugout after every homer. They sang Calma, with or without a shirt. And they won and couldn’t stop winning. They climbed from the depths of a 19-31 start by taking those cliches to heart, going 74-38 the rest of the regular season. By May 25, they were playing must-win games, so once the postseason rolled around, they stayed loose in tight spots. They trailed in all five of their elimination games and won all of them. They trailed 2-1 in the Dodgers series and 3-2 in the Astros series and won against the two best teams that baseball has to offer. It’s really no surprise that these Nationals responded so well to adversity in the playoffs because they already had proven they could, time after time.

Thank you, Davey.

There’s a certain poetic justice to a team playing old-fashioned baseball eventually becoming World Champions and having fun along the way. There’s also poetic justice to a team surging ahead in analytics but willfully lagging behind on social issues losing on the world’s grandest stage. It feels good to see Zack Greinke lose. The man who blocked a trade to the Nationals because he thought the Brewers would win sooner ended up losing a decisive World Series game despite spinning 6⅓ innings of masterful ball. But it feels even better to see Yuli Gurriel lose, the man who mocked Asian peoples’ eyes in a previous Fall Classic. It feels best to see Roberto Osuna and Brandon Taubman and Jeff Luhnow lose, the man who was charged with domestic violence and the men who looked past it to employ him and his 38 saves. It really feels like the bad guys lost. Of course, that doesn’t solve the issue, but it at least provides a bit of respite.

Thank you, baseball Gods.

I have to conclude this piece by talking about Bryce Harper. To me, there’s no doubt that he and his 35 homers, 114 RBI, 36 doubles, 125 wRC+, and 4.6 WAR would’ve represented a massive upgrade in right field and directly translate to more wins in the regular year. I despise the Ewing Theory narrative around Harper because it is false. Harper is still a fantastic player and comparing any season to his 2015 MVP year is unfair because of simple regression to the mean. Yet, the numbers can’t hope to quantify clubhouse culture right now, and it seemed as though shedding Harper lifted the stress off the Nationals’ backs. Don’t get it twisted: baseball people still had high expectations for this team. But the absence of Harper let the team deal with such expectations more positively, even though they still missed his bat in the lineup.

Harper may not be a World Champion, but he could well be a soothsayer, who declared that he would try to bring a title back to DC. Mission accomplished.

Nathan Chen
is the Sports Executive. He was born and bred in the DC Sports Bog and is ready to die in it.

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