Baseball has not yet returned to the nation’s capital—the coronavirus pandemic has delayed Opening Day and a shortened season is going to be expected. But if one team has been able to enjoy this offseason more than any other, it’s the reigning World Series champion Nationals.
Washington rode a series of comebacks on its way to securing its first championship in franchise history, the District’s first since 1924. The Nationals trailed in five elimination games and won all five. They faced two juggernauts in the Los Angeles Dodgers and Houston Astros, falling behind in both series.
It isn’t often the word “miracle” is tossed around when referring to a sports team, but that’s exactly what happened as Washington scratched and clawed its way through October. From a dreadful 19-31 start to overcoming the worst odds a World Series underdog had faced in 12 years, the Nationals never seemed to be the favorite—and they kept winning anyway.
But in order to make a comeback, a team must stumble first. Those stumbles create opportunities for teams to seize ahold of and make into turning points. They aren’t necessarily the biggest moments of a game or series, as the tides often begins to shift before anyone even realizes what’s happening.
Here are the biggest turning points of the Nationals’ run through the 2019 playoffs.
Wild Card Game vs. Milwaukee – Michael Taylor is hit by a pitch to put the first runner on base in the bottom of the eighth inning
Everyone remembers Juan Soto hitting that slicing line drive to right field, where the ball took an odd hop and skirted by the Brewers’ Trent Grisham to clear the bases and give Washington its first lead of the game.
But that rally started when Michael Taylor, who was pinch hitting for Stephen Strasburg, was hit in the wrist by Josh Hader on a pitch that could’ve just as easily been called a foul. The ball found a pocket between Taylor’s left hand and the knob of the bat. If home plate umpire Mike Everitt hadn’t determined it was a hit-by-pitch before going to replay, the booth would’ve likely stood with that decision too.
That put the speedy Taylor on the basepaths and proved to be an immediate advantage as he went first to third on a broken-bat single by Ryan Zimmerman to batters later. He didn’t score the tying run (Andrew Stevenson pinch ran for Zimmerman) or the winning one (that would be Anthony Rendon), but an important one nonetheless that got things going for Washington.
NLDS vs. Los Angeles – Ryan Zimmerman sends the series back to Dodger Stadium with a three-run homer in Game 4
Through their first four games of the playoffs, the Nationals only scored more than four runs in a game once. Although their pitching was doing its part to keep them in games, the second-highest scoring offense in the NL was still trying to wake up.
That finally happened in Game 4, when Washington entered the fifth inning locked into a 1-1 tie with the Dodgers. Julio Urias stepped onto the mound for Los Angeles and was immediately hit around. Trea Turner roped a leadoff single to left, moved to second on an Adam Eaton bunt and scored on an RBI single by Rendon.
Dodgers manager Dave Roberts finally pulled Urias when he allowed Howie Kendrick to put runners on the corners with a single of his own. That set up a matchup between Pedro Baez and Ryan Zimmerman, who was making just his second start of the postseason.
Zimmerman delivered one of the biggest hits of his career, taking a high fastball and powering it over the wall in straightaway center field to open up a 5-1 lead for Washington. The Nationals went on to win that game 6-1, staving off elimination and pushing the series to a Game 5.
NLCS vs. St. Louis - Aníbal Sánchez strikes out Dexter Fowler for the first out of the first inning in Game 1
If any part of the Nationals’ World Series run doesn’t look like the rest, it was their dominant four-game sweep of the St. Louis Cardinals in the NLCS.
Washington never trailed in the series and its starting pitching was the reason why. Aníbal Sánchez got the unlikely Game 1 start after Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg started the last two games against Los Angeles and Patrick Corbin pitched out of the bullpen in Game 5.
Sánchez didn’t disappoint, setting the tone for the series by carrying a no-hitter into the eighth inning. He struck out Dexter Fowler to start the bottom of the first, Yan Gomes drove in a run the following frame and the Nationals never trailed—in that game or the rest of the series.
It would only be the beginning for the Nationals’ starters. Scherzer carried a no-no into the seventh the very next night. Strasburg struck out 12 Cardinals over seven innings of one-run ball in Game 3. Corbin was gifted with a seven-run lead in the first inning of Game 4 and bridged the game into the later innings without relinquishing it.
The sweep was a statement to the rest of the league that their miracle season was no fluke, and they had a pennant to prove it.
World Series vs. Houston – Anthony Rendon mitigates a questionable call from the umpires by hitting a two-run home run to pad Washington’s lead in Game 6
This was perhaps the toughest turning point to identify. It could’ve been Eaton hitting a game-tying home run off Justin Verlander in the fifth that deflated the Houston crowd. Soto crushing a go-ahead blast to right and carrying his bat down the first base line to give his team some swagger back was also a good candidate.
But no play embodied the Nationals’ down-but-not-out mentality than the one that unfolded in the top of the seventh. After Gomes reached on a single, Turner hit a soft grounder in front of the pitcher Brad Peacock. He threw the ball wide and allowed the Nationals’ shortstop to get over to second and Gomes to third.
That is, until the umpire crew waived it off and ruled Turner had run out of the basepath on his way to first. Replay showed that he ran inside the foul line and that if the ball had not gotten away, Turner probably would’ve just been out at first in a routine call by the first base umpire.
So instead of having a runner on second with one out or runners on second and third with no outs, Gomes had to go back to first and Turner was sent back to the dugout. There could’ve been an ugly postgame press conference had that been a turning point for Houston, but Rendon put that all to rest two pitches later.
Will Harris took over for Peacock and retired Eaton to bring up Rendon with two outs. He delivered just like he had all postseason, launching a two-run blast that gave the Nationals a 5-2 lead and kept them alive for one last game.
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