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The five quotes that defined Nationals’ run to the World Series

The five quotes that defined Nationals’ run to the World Series

What people say, and when, is always something the sports world circles back to. Make a bad trade? The verbal justification for it saddles an executive like a yoke. Assure an outcome and follow through? Ask Joe Namath how that works out.

In the case of the 2019 Nationals, the fluctuation was so grand, yelling that the manager should be fired and grousing about the manager not having his option picked up occurred in the same year. So, as we wait for baseball to hopefully return at some point this season, let’s look back at five quotes which defined the time and remain intriguing in retrospect.

May 23, 2019
“Things are going to change. Things are going to change. And I know that. So we just got to keep pounding away, keep playing baseball. There's good players in that clubhouse, really good players. We'll turn things around.”
— Davey Martinez

Guess what just happened? Yes, a sweep in New York, 19-31, Martinez on the hot seat and woo boy, what a mess.

The statement felt tone deaf at the time. Martinez’s eternally upbeat persona began to look aloof or misguided. Did this guy not get it? Not understand what was happening a year after missing the playoffs? Didn’t he know his job could be in the balance? What if they fall on their face when returning home for a three-game series against Miami?

The next night carried some of the ugliness seen in New York and earlier. But, the slop was thrown about with Miami in Nationals Park. The margins for mistakes were wider. Juan Soto hit a three-run home run in the eighth. Matt Adams also homered. The Nationals went from down 9-8 to up 12-8. Sean Doolittle, extracting himself from a rare meltdown as his contribution to the New York debacle, allowed a run, but survived.

Afterward, Martinez entered the press conference room simultaneously on edge and relieved. They didn’t play well, yet snapped a five-game losing streak which was the back end of a 7-15 run. When a reporter suggested to Martinez a win is a win, is a win, he said, “You took the words out of my mouth.”

Sept. 3, 2019
“Boom.”
— Davey Martinez

Guess what just happened? Yes, the Kurt Suzuki walk-off against the Mets.

Washington had a season-defining win almost 3 ½ months after the season’s nadir in New York. They showed signs of perpetual rallying even when things were bad. They just couldn’t finish it off, making too many mistakes or under-performing to a point of undermining their chances.

The particulars of that night remain relevant when looking at what was to come: The Nationals trailed 4-1, 4-2, 5-2, 5-4 and 10-4. And yet they found a way back. No other game served as a better microcosm of the entire season. Washington was behind all season, starting back in May, continuing at the All-Star break, and again Sept. 3 against the Mets, until, in the end, it figured out a way.

The Mets carried a 99.9 percent expected win probability when the top of the ninth ended. They still held a 69 percent expected win probability when Suzuki went into a 3-2 count with one out against Edwin Diaz after laying off a couple sliders, then swinging through one. Suzuki fouled off a 100.2-mph fastball. He fouled off a 99.3-mph fastball. Then, boom, on a 99.9-mph fastball.

“When I came in here, I didn’t really know what just happened,” Mets center fielder Brandon Nimmo said. “It kind of just seemed like a bad dream. That’s hard to do even in a Little League game I feel like, to come back from seven runs down in the bottom of the ninth against guys throwing 99 miles an hour. I don’t really have words for that.”

Mike Rizzo pointed to this day during spring training when explaining why he was later of the belief they could rally in the playoffs.

“Since that Mets game when we came back in the ninth, I thought we could beat anyone, anytime and we were never out of it.”

Oct. 1, 2019
“Maybe it's finally our turn.”
— Ryan Zimmerman

Zimmerman, finally, had moved out of a round in the playoffs. The Nationals had not won a series, but they had survived against Josh Hader and the Milwaukee Brewers in the National League Wild-Card Game.

Soto’s single to right field assured a tie in the bottom of the eighth inning. The Nationals again had rallied, this time against Hader, who entered the game with a 3-1 lead after a regular season in which he allowed two or more runs in an outing five times in 61 appearances.

But, it was the bounce of the ball combined with an overrun by right fielder Trent Grisham which prompted the chaos and quote. Anthony Rendon scored all the way from first. Soto’s excitement led to him getting into a rundown and ending the inning. Beer flew in the stands.

Afterward, Zimmerman recounted the small, often hard to believe, things which went against the Nationals in postseasons of the past. From Pete Kozma to the fifth inning against the Cubs. All the powerhouse teams which failed not just when trying to win the World Series, but when trying to finish a series and advance.

“You have to catch some breaks, but more importantly, you have to take advantage of them,” Zimmerman said. “In the past, it seems like it's gone the other way, but tonight we caught a couple breaks.”

On to Los Angeles.

Oct. 9, 2019
“He's the epitome of a professional hitter. He's what, he's like 45 years old and still doing this.”
— Anthony Rendon

Rendon, of course, was talking about Howie Kendrick during the postgame glow after Game 5 of the National League Division Series. Kendrick’s 10th-inning grand slam instantly became the biggest hit in Nationals history, supplanting Soto’s single from the Wild-Card Game. It put Washington three outs from the National League Championship Series. Sean Doolittle recorded them.

Kendrick’s season was set to deliver another hit which will forever live in Nationals lore. At this point, he was operating as the wide-shouldered veteran who put together the best year of his career when a team was in desperate need of it.

Kendrick played just the right amount. His 370 plate appearances were his most since 2016. Washington had no choice. He was hitting too well and Zimmerman was stalled by plantar fasciitis. The limited work -- though more than the Nationals likely preferred -- allowed Kendrick to be fresh during the postseason. He delivered a grand slam in Los Angeles and a ball off the foul pole in Houston which changed everything.

Oct. 31, 2019
“Everybody had a moment.”
— Max Scherzer
Scherzer was booze-soaked and exhausted. Not long before this statement in the Nationals’ manic clubhouse, he was wandering the field looking for no one and everyone. He appeared lost despite being in the middle of a crazed crowd on the field. The infield graduated from the tension of Game 7 of the World Series to a party platform. It was all a bit much at first.

His moments came from an unlikely Game 7 start days after his neck was so rigid he “fell out of bed.” Even that became a break. Joe Ross replaced Scherzer in Game 5, which made him available for a tank-emptying appearance in Game 7. And, the Nationals had to do all this the hard way -- losing three consecutive games at home to fall behind 3-2 -- before finishing it off. It was apt for a laborious season which featured climbing out of holes more often than anyone’s doctor would recommend.

But, at the start of Halloween, they were done. The Nationals were World Series champions in the heart of Texas. Scherzer leaned against the concrete wall just outside the Nationals’ clubhouse and tried to make sense of what happened. He knew he would be exhausted from the workload and alcohol consumption. He knew he needed to figure out the back problems which nagged him much of the season. He also knew he -- they -- had made it. His second World Series appearance delivered a win. The soreness and headache would fade. His back would heal. The only thing guaranteed to remain was what they did.

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Sean Doolittle among Nationals to express support for protesters

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Sean Doolittle among Nationals to express support for protesters

As demonstrators stood in the streets of D.C. on Monday to protest racial injustice by law enforcement across the country—most recently resulting in the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis—police used tear gas and flash-bang grenades to disperse the crowd in order for President Donald Trump to visit St. John’s Episcopal Church, which had been damaged amid protests Sunday.

Nationals closer Sean Doolittle and his wife Eireann Dolan voiced on Twitter their displeasure with the decision to use violence in order to break up the crowds.

Athletes and sports teams across the U.S. have chimed in to express their support for equal rights and the Black Lives Matter movement. Although the Nationals had yet to release an official statement at the time this story was published, they did join the #BlackOutTuesday movement by making their profile pictures on both Twitter and Instagram black and posting blank photos.

Outfielder Juan Soto, second baseman Starlin Castro, starting pitcher Joe Ross and third baseman Carter Kieboom joined the #BlackOutTuesday movement on their Instagram accounts as well. First baseman Howie Kendrick reposted Tiger Woods’ statement on his Instagram story.

Ross also retweeted a tweet from The Atlantic’s Jemele Hill that ridiculed the NFL for making a statement in support of the protestors after the Colin Kaepernick kneeling saga resulted in the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback’s continued unemployment.

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What if Bryce Harper re-signed with the Nationals?

What if Bryce Harper re-signed with the Nationals?

Bryce Harper told his wife, Kayla, he wanted to hear the Nationals’ offer. He figured he would return to Washington, the only place he played, and anchor himself there until gray started to creep into his famous follicles.

Then, he heard it.

It was lower than the original, chock full of deferred money, a lean on what had become a stagnant market for Harper’s services. The Nationals knew Harper would reject their initial offer to enter free agency. They knew he would reject their subsequent low-ball offer. They were only in for the brief optics of the idea. They were not steadfastly trying to retain Harper. He left for Philadelphia.

That’s reality. But, we’re here to play with alternative realities during “What if?” week. In this case, what if Bryce Harper re-signed with the Nationals?

First, picture the press conference: Harper sits down in Nationals Park, every local and national outlet is there, he reiterates his love for the city. He talks about raising children while working for the Nationals. His dad threw him pitches in the park just that prior summer. He hopes to do the same with his kids one day.

He’ll never be a free agent again. Harper’s time in Washington started when he was 19 years old. It will end when he is twice that age. Managing principal owner Mark Lerner will speak of Harper in paternal terms. Mike Rizzo will, as well. Scott Boras will pontificate. The media swath following the team will receive its typical jolt from Harper’s presence.

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The Nationals now have the best outfield in baseball. And, it’s probably not close. They combine for 86 home runs and 13 WAR in 2019. Harper is engaged on defense, making them the best defensive outfield, too. Between his arm, Victor Robles’ arm and Juan Soto’s growth, few want to run on them.

And the lineup is devastating. Harper replaces Adam Eaton as the No. 2 hitter. Trea Turner still leads off, Anthony Rendon follows Harper, and Soto follows him. Instead of having the best 3-4 combination in baseball -- like they did with Rendon and Soto -- the Nationals have the best 2-3-4 mix, and, when Turner is healthy, possibly the best 1-4. On the days Howie Kendrick hits fifth, the OPS of each player looks like this: .850, .882, 1.010, .949, .966. They crush right-handed pitching.

Eaton is gone. The cost control in his team-option-laden contract is appealing, but his recent play and health concerns undermine his value. He fetches three prospects, one of which is a catcher, the other two low-level pitchers. Washington’s farm system desperately needs an influx of both.

The math problems begin the following year. Harper’s huge contract limits the Nationals’ flexibility. They paid him and Patrick Corbin. Now, Rendon is leaving and Stephen Strasburg has opted out. Ownership decides they can’t bring on another enormous contract. Both leave.

Their departure begins to stir animus toward Harper’s contract. He wanted all the money when it was due and not in deferrals. The organization capitulated. They will have to maneuver around the cost for the next decade. Max Scherzer coming off the books in two years will help. The competitive balance tax annually creeps upward. Soto and Robles severely out-perform their low-level contracts, providing some flexibility.

Harper is a salve for Rendon’s departure. Instead of Starlin Castro hitting third, it’s Soto because Davey Martinez decides stacking lefties doesn’t matter when it is these lefties. Castro hits fifth. The first baseman du jour hits cleanup. Fewer questions about the offense follow Washington into spring training 2020.

Kids keep coming to see Harper. His voice in the game grows as he ages. He hides less from the media, lets his guard down a bit more, while also measuring his words. Jayson Werth counsels him on the side. Ryan Zimmerman and Scherzer help him navigate in the clubhouse day-to-day. Once those two depart, Harper is the top voice for the organization. When things are bad, he needs to answer, absorb blame, motivate himself and his teammates as much as the latter can occur in baseball. He’s the franchise face, for better or worse, the next decade.

Does he have a 2019 World Series title to rest on? Perhaps. The offense and defense (were he to play defense with vigor like he did in Philadelphia and did not in 2018) would both be better. The pitching staff would be the same because ownership went over the CBT this one time to take a maximum swing. It’s the following year when things become tough. And the next decade in D.C. baseball would belong to him, no matter what.

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