The Nationals reached the inspirational t-shirt part of their season before the calendar flipped to June. That is never ideal.
“Stay in the Fight” the message said. Players and coaches walked around the stadium wearing that slogan on a shirt starting June 19. The back read “162+” with that plus denoting the playoffs, which seemed an impossibility well into June. Did they actually believe it?
Months after their season appeared finished before it really started, a 19-31 record consigning them to fourth place in the N.L. East, the Nationals have made Major League Baseball’s postseason party.
A doubleheader sweep of the Philadelphia Phillies and a Chicago Cubs loss in Pittsburgh on Tuesday secured at least one of the N.L.’s two wild-card berths for Washington. The Nationals, with a 69-38 record from May 24 on, will play baseball in October.
“I knew we wouldn’t quit. Can’t honestly tell you that I thought we’d be here,” first baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. “But I knew this team wouldn’t roll over and quit. I knew we’d play the season out. Our talent shined through. We went on a run and got back in it and now we’re here. We’ve never tried it this way.”
That’s because they won N.L. East titles in 2012, 2014, 2016 and 2017 – most of them by big margins. This was different. As a team, yes, Washington stayed in the fight. But individual players had their own battles. If it was a fight, it became a dozen personal brawls.
Zimmerman missed 91 games with plantar fasciitis, including all of May, most of June and all of August. He first went on the Injured List on April 28, returned June 28 and reinjured his foot in a July 21 game at Atlanta. Zimmerman only returned when rosters expanded on September 1. This will be his fewest games played since his rookie season in 2005 when he was promoted from the minor leagues at age 20 and played 20 games that September.
Manager Dave Martinez’s heart ailment in the middle of a game last week scared everyone. He missed a critical series in St. Louis entirely to get checked. Reliever Sean Doolittle’s arm betrayed him in August and he spent weeks reconfiguring his mechanics, losing his closer role in the process. His ERA in August was 12.86 with two blown saves. He took two weeks off to rebuild and retool and there are glimpses of the old Doolittle, but he isn’t ready to declare himself back yet.
Max Scherzer, the ultimate warrior, was helpless for seven weeks with a back injury that wouldn’t heal. He made just one start between July 6 and Aug. 22 and hasn’t yet found the dominance that made him a Cy Young Award candidate the first three months of the season. But he’s still here when some wondered if his season was over.
Gerardo Parra was unceremoniously cut by the San Francisco Giants on May 1 and was at his lowest when the Nationals called out of desperation. They were decimated by injuries at the time. Parra became the engine of the clubhouse, a buoyant, positive presence who contributed on the field well into the summer and started the Baby Shark song craze that captivated fans and baffled opponents.
Howie Kendrick batted .344, but he was still okay with playing just a few times a week. It kept him fresh at age 36. Brian Dozier signed a one-year, $9 million contract with Washington in January to be the starting second baseman.
But he lost playing time when the Nationals signed veteran Asdrubal Cabrera on Aug. 5 to give them another option in the infield. Cabrera has started 29 games to 18 for Dozier. No problem. For these Nationals winning trumps all. And they’ll get at least one playoff game to prove it.
“You had guys constantly having to work on things, embrace different roles,” Doolittle said. “We had a lot of injuries. On other teams, a guy that’s performing like Howie is maybe doesn’t embrace that bench role. Maybe a guy like Asdrubal Cabrera or Brian Dozier, with all they’ve accomplished in their career, maybe they don’t embrace sharing playing time with each other. Because we were a little bit of a veteran group, the guys were willing to put the team before themselves. I think that’s a big reason why we’re here celebrating right now.”
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