The Nats sucked. Let’s not kid ourselves: In May, it looked like the seven-year run of championship-caliber baseball was over for this team, which sat at 19-31 and looked truly terrible getting even there. I had given up on them and thought it was time to dump players and get a new manager. I, of course, was wrong.
Fast forward to today, after the Nats completed what I’d argue was the greatest comeback climb in the history of baseball. They won a dramatic and improbable World Series, 4 games to 3, coming from behind yet still again in Game 7 to break the Houston Astros. The mighty Astros — a resonable pick for the best team of the last 20 years — probably still wonder what hit them. So do I.
I wonder because I lived through the pain of those four other playoff years, including two years (2012 and 2017) when I thought the Nats were baseball’s best team. I lived through the most painful loss I’ve ever witnessed — the Game 5 collapse against St. Louis in 2012, when the Nats blew a 6-0 lead. I also was in the park in 2017, when the Cubs came back and won in a deciding game that had waves of nearly indescribable weirdness.
I thought this team was haunted. I actually was kind of glad its run looked like it was over, because I thought a few rebuilding years could pass, I could enjoy some non-pressure summer baseball, and perhaps the next World Series contender wouldn’t remember the horrors that the postseason provided. But no: The Nats roared back and made the playoffs as a wild card. I waited for the pain I was certain would come.
Actually, the wild card game against Milwaukee never felt painful. The Brewers scored early, handed over a 3-1 lead to the best reliever in the National League, and this looked like a garden-variety defeat that would end a comeback season. I admired it for what it was and settled in to enjoy the park for the last two innings of the year.
And the Nats scored three runs and won 4-3, with the winning run scoring on a bad-hop error from a Milwaukee outfielder.
Los Angeles was next. The Dodgers were clearly the National League’s best team and had gone to the World Series the past two years. Predictably, the Nats fell beind, both in overall games (2 to 1) and in the score in the deciding Game 5 (3-0). And they won that game, gloriously, with an improbable homer-driven rally against one of the best pitchers in baseball, followed by a soul-crushing grand slam in extra innings. What was happening here?
I felt sorry for St. Louis. I grew up a Cardinals fan, as I’ve often stated here, and most of my family live in Missouri and remain incredibly loyal. They remembered 2012, reminded me about it and expected a similar Nationals collapse, if not an even easier series victory for the Cardinals. Instead, the Cards got swept and two Nationals pitchers carried no-hitters into the late innings.
Next: The World Series. Holy shit, the World Series! I didn’t feel any real stress; almost anyone who knew anything about baseball considered Houston the big favorite, and even a complete Nats collapse couldn’t erase the joy of this season. In Vegas, the Nats were the biggest underdog since the Rockies in ’07 (the Rockies got swept), and deservedly so.
You know how that ended. More comebacks; the Nats trailed in every game they won, became the first champ in history to win four road games, and just generally sowed the all seeds of crazy. I’ll never see another World Series like it. It’s highly unlikely there will ever be another World Series like it.
I remember the exact moment I thought the Nats would win the series. It came after Lance Bregman hit that first-inning homer in Game 6 for Houston and adopted that ridiculous I-just-won-the-World-Series gaze-and-trot. It was as though he had learned nothing about his opponent. But Juan Soto adopted the same gaze-and-trot after a huge homer a few innings later, in an act of fantastic trolling, and the Astros fell. Then Kendrick snuck that homer over the wall and off the foul pole in Game 7; the pole rang like a bell, and you knew for whom the bell tolled. And then there was an epic parade a few days later.
This series was so improbable, so bizarre, so exciting, that it still hasn’t entirely sunk in. I’d rate this Nats team as the weakest of the five that have played in the post-season since 2012. Yet they are the ones who are World Series champs, defeating two incredibly powerful teams along the way, and no one can ever take that away from them.