I’m not a Nationals fan, generally speaking. But I think that by the time the World Series got started, for one reason or another, most baseball fans were rooting for Washington. And there was so much to root for that made their improbable run to the championship that much more fun to watch.
From the start, the Nationals were the comeback kids, overcoming the Milwaukee Brewers’ touted closer in the eighth inning of the wild card game to advance to the division series. They pushed back against the Los Angeles Dodgers, stretching the series to five games and winning on a 10th-inning Howie Kendrick grand slam against the best team in the National League. They steamrolled the St. Louis Cardinals in a four-game sweep to face the best team in baseball in the World Series.
The Nationals were underdogs going into the series. People wondered if they could keep up the momentum with six days off. Then they won the first two games on the road, only to lose the next three at home. When things seemed most dire, they then did the impossible. They won every road game of the series, turning what should have been home field advantage into their own secret weapon. They became just the second team ever, after the 2014 San Francisco Giants, to win the wild card game and go on to win the World Series.
The list of pitchers they beat along the way looks like Arya Stark’s revenge list if she were a veteran baseball player pushing for a championship in 2019. And they got them all.
Clayton Kershaw x 2 Walker Buehler Miles Mikolas Adam Wainwright Jack Flaherty Gerrit Cole
Justin Verlander x 2 Zack Greinke
Looking back at where they were during the division series, with a bullpen consisting primarily of starting pitchers on two days rest, makes the Nationals’ run even more astounding. I was convinced that they couldn’t maintain that strategy long-term, and they didn’t. They relied heavily on Daniel Hudson, Sean Doolittle and Patrick Corbin, sure, but they also got meaningful innings from the likes of Fernando Rodney, Wander Suero and Joe Ross.
The Washington stretch of the series was such a bummer that it made the first two games of the series feel like a fever dream. The Nationals combined for three runs in three games. They were so good at getting on base and getting hits with runners in scoring position throughout the postseason, and then they stranded 25 during a three-game stretch.
Things seemed bleak. Then Tuesday night — when Anthony Rendon reminded everyone why he is a league MVP candidate by going 3-for-4 with five RBI, and when Juan Soto hit his third home run of the series — the feeling that the National might be blessed by kismet started to return.
This wild and improbable run by the Nationals was exactly what is fun about postseason baseball, especially if your team isn’t involved. It was hard not to root for Max Scherzer and Anibal Sanchez (who competed together, along with Justin Verlander, in the 2012 World Series loss for the Detroit Tigers) as they had this moment after the game:
Aníbal Sánchez crying while hugging Max Scherzer and saying "We won one. We finally won one."— Cut4 (@Cut4) October 31, 2019
This is everything. pic.twitter.com/bhMdyAfOvW
We got a dancing Mad Max on our hands pic.twitter.com/o6mTwyJ6xK— Jomboy (@Jomboy_) October 31, 2019
It was hard not to get swept up in the Nationals’ post-home run celebration soul trains through the dugout, followed by Kendrick and Adam Eaton’s rev dance. It was hard not to do the Baby Shark dance every time you heard it, even though the song had already been stuck in your head 24/7 for a solid month. It was hard not to to be in awe of Steven Strasburg’s entire playoff performance.
It was hard not to root for Dave Martinez, the passion he has for his team and the way he managed it during this run. In his postgame speech to the team, he credited his players for healing his heart. It was all kinds of feels-inducing.
“You guys cured my heart ... tonight I'll celebrate with my boys, because WE are the World Champions!”— MLB (@MLB) October 31, 2019
Davey Martinez delivers a heartfelt celebration speech. pic.twitter.com/7glSRka9u0
It was easy to root for Soto, a rookie sensation who took the spotlight on the biggest stage in baseball before his 21st birthday. It was easy to root for Doolittle, all around Good Guy (and fantastic reliever and giant nerd). It was easy to get emotional about Ryan Zimmerman finally winning not just his first postseason series but the whole darn thing, after a long history with the team.
But no one can say that what the Nationals did this year was easy. Aside from the Cardinals series, they scratched and clawed their way through the postseason on their way to becoming one of the best feel-good sports stories of 2019. And we were all lucky to be along for the ride.