Sports

The Nationals Broke the Team That Broke Baseball

The Houston Astros were inevitable, until they weren’t.

Max Scherzer of the Washington Nationals celebrates in the locker room after Game 7 of the 2019 World Series.
Max Scherzer of the Washington Nationals celebrates in the locker room after Game 7 of the 2019 World Series.
Elsa/Getty Images

The Houston Astros did everything right. Thanks to superlative scouting and player development, a dash of intentional losing, and a dead-eyed strategic vision that appraised a star reliever suspended for alleged domestic abuse as a “distressed asset,” the American League champs bent Major League Baseball to their will. The Astros, winners of the 2017 World Series, rang up a startling 107 victories during the 2019 regular season, buttressing a historically terrifying lineup—George Springer! Jose Altuve! Alex Bregman! Yuli Gurriel! Yordan Alvarez! Carlos Correa! I assure you I would stop typing exclamation points if all these dudes weren’t so great!—with a pair of ludicrously dominant starting pitchers. When the Houston front office acquired another elite starter to toss on the pile with Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole, it seemed like they’d rigged the game. The way Sports Illustrated described it on Oct. 1, Astros owner Jim Crane simply walked into his assistant general manager’s office and ordered up Zack Greinke with a wave of his hand. Within a few hours, another Cy Young winner (and probably another title) was on the way to Houston.

The assistant general manager name-checked in that SI article was a then-unknown quant named Brandon Taubman. A few weeks later, a different SI story would call out Taubman for taunting a group of female reporters, gleefully shouting the name of the star reliever, Roberto Osuna, that the club had acquired on the cheap thanks to his 75-game domestic violence suspension. The non-apologies that preceded Taubman’s eventual firing revealed the Astros to be as emotionally vacant as they are tactically brilliant. The three straight wins the Astros rung up against the Washington Nationals in D.C. after dropping the first two games of the World Series at home in Texas appeared to show that Houston’s talent acquirers, and the talent they’d acquired, were unimpeachable. This was a franchise undeterred by woo-woo foolishness like momentum and karma. The Astros were the irresistible force and the immovable object, an Excel spreadsheet in which the columns added up to Screw you, losers.

In Games 6 and 7, the team that broke baseball got broken by baseball. First, the Nationals’ Stephen Strasburg—a pitcher whose persistent success has been accompanied by an even more persistent refusal to acknowledge said success—outdueled Verlander, becoming the first player in major-league history to go 5–0 in a single postseason. Then, in Wednesday’s decider, Greinke outpitched the tender-necked Max Scherzer, holding the Nationals to one hit through six innings before giving up a solo home run to Anthony Rendon and getting pulled with a runner on first and the Astros ahead 2–1. The next batter, Howie Kendrick, gave the Nats a lead they wouldn’t relinquish.

Kendrick is a good hitter. He’s played in the majors for 14 years, and he made an All-Star team once, when he was 27 years old. Last spring, he ruptured his Achilles. This season, at age 35 and coming off a potentially career-ending injury, he had his best offensive season ever, because baseball is weird. Baseball is so weird, in fact, that this wasn’t even the first time during these playoffs that Kendrick hit a home run to give the Nats the lead in a winner-take-all game against one of the best teams of all time.* (Dodgers fans don’t need to be reminded that the other home run was a grand slam.)

To be clear, the Nationals didn’t win the World Series because they got lucky. Strasburg, Scherzer, and Patrick Corbin—who excelled in relief in Game 7—are the only trio of starters that can match up with Cole, Verlander, and Greinke. Juan Soto and Rendon are two of the best hitters in the game, and imperturbable under pressure. But this was also a team that, at one point not so long ago, looked to have one of the worst bullpens in the history of professional baseball. Also consider that, back in February, the Nationals’ supposed franchise cornerstone, Bryce Harper, took a $300 million deal to move to Philadelphia. And back in May, the Nats’ record was 19–31, second-worst in the National League. The only thing that seemed inevitable about this team, back then, was their summerlong slide into baseball irrelevance.

Yes, OK, the Nationals got really good in the back half of the regular season. But recall that back on Oct. 1, they were losing 3–1 in the eighth inning of the National League Wild Card game before Soto’s two-out single (and a timely error) put them over the top against the Milwaukee Brewers. And back on Oct. 9, they were losing 3–1 in the eighth inning of another elimination game, this one against the Dodgers, before Rendon and Soto hit solo homers, tying the game just in time for Kendrick to untie it with his extra-inning blast. And back on Tuesday, the Nats were one loss away from elimination yet again, and yet again they didn’t lose. If you keep on not losing, it turns out, you win.

Before this World Series, there had never been a seven-game series in the history of major North American pro sports in which the home crowd never got to see a victory. But baseball is weird and impossible to rig. Greinke, whose acquisition made an Astros title seem overdetermined, became an irrelevant bystander in the seventh inning of Game 7. Osuna, whose acquisition has in large measure come to define the Astros franchise, came on in relief once the Nats had already seized the lead. The 2019 Houston Astros were inevitable. The 2019 Washington Nationals were not. This is a sport, though, in which the inevitable is no match for the inexplicable. Forget momentum and karma and stick with what the spreadsheet says: The 2019 Houston Astros are losers, and the 2019 Washington Nationals are not.

Correction, Oct. 31, 2019: This piece originally misstated that Howie Kendrick hit a grand slam in Game 7 of the Nationals-Dodgers series. It was in Game 5.