WASHINGTON -- For months, meetings in the manager’s office were designed to decipher what was going wrong. They thought then, and later, effort was not an issue. The bullpen was. Health was. Bumbling baserunning was. Ill execution in the field was, too. All were viewed as correctable by the Nationals’ coaching staff.
The situation appeared more dire on the outside. Washington stumbled to a 19-31 record. Radio shows crackled with demands the manager be fired, opinion writers lurched ahead to wonder about a Max Scherzer trade, and the math was daunting. Only two teams had played 50 games at a worse clip and made the postseason in the last 30 years.
Yet, there they were Tuesday night, watching the closing moments in Pittsburgh on the center field scoreboard before partying in the clubhouse, cracking disbelief with a final win to clinch a spot in the Wild-Card Game. A year after missing the playoffs, the weirdest of seasons has led to an unlikely entrance into the postseason tournament, if even by the narrowest of holds.
“It's so special, this is so awesome after everything we've been through coming together after everything over the course of the season and having to crawl out of the hole that we found ourselves in in May,” Sean Doolittle said. “It makes it that much sweeter. this is really really special.”
This is the major league’s oldest team in a new setting for the organization. It will enter a do-or-die single game Oct. 1, almost assuredly against the Milwaukee Brewers. Where the game will be played remains in flux. The typically season-ending National League Division Series would follow in Los Angeles two days later should a win occur Tuesday. Prior, Washington can at least begin aligning itself for handling the next nine guaranteed postseason innings thanks to its resurrection.
Once the division drifted out of reach, finding a path to the Wild-Card Game became the only way for Washington to enter the postseason. Chicago chased it until finally folding in Pittsburgh via a 9-2 loss to the Pirates. A Tuesday night rally and 6-5 victory fueled by a Trea Turner grand slam -- leading to a third consecutive win in two days of play -- vaulted the Nationals’ math into an indisputable place. The ride there was strange.
Trea Turner’s broken finger from a bean ball. The Trevor Rosenthal Experiment. Being swept in New York. Adam Eaton vs. Todd Frazier. Derek Lilliquist fired. The Kyle Barraclough Experiment. Anthony Rendon unextended and killing. Max Scherzer’s broken nose. Scherzer’s black eye. Scherzer’s back injuries. Fernando Rodney up. Rodney’s appearances. Baby Shark. Daddy Shark. Shark chant. Dugout dances. El Cabby. Doolittle overworked. Doolittle back. Doolittle the closer -- maybe. Aaron Barrett returns. A seventh-run bottom of the ninth. Davey Martinez’s health scare. Martinez back.
To repeat: been a strange season.
“That’s an understatement,” Doolittle said earlier in the week.
Coaches chewed on moments during those early postgame office meetings. Martinez often rewatched games through the early morning hours. His staff wondered about solutions and solidarity.
“The players have a much shorter memory than we do, which is great,” bench coach Chip Hale said. “Because they have to leave clubhouse and get ready the next day. We think about every move we made or I suggested to Davey on pitching, so it’s very difficult. But, the mood on those meetings when we were struggling was not because -- the one thing as a coach/instructor, whether it’s coaching Little League, or high school or college or professional baseball, is effort. And we felt like, even at our worst -- that series we had in New York -- we were giving great effort. And almost too much effort.
“So, we almost had to back them down a little bit in those situations. We felt comfortable with how they were playing. We didn’t feel like they had given up on us. Which is really important. That’s happened before in places I’ve been, I’ve seen that happen. We knew the veteran guys would start to settle the young kids down and make them realize, hey, it’s a long year, we’re going to have our run.”
It began with a sloppy win May 24 against Miami. Bit by bit, life was pumped back into the season. June: 18-8. July: 15-10. August: 19-7. September’s leveling didn’t prevent the final goal of claiming a postseason spot.
“It was a situation where I think a lot of teams could’ve folded,” Mike Rizzo said. “A lot of teams, the clubhouse would have been fractured.”
By Tuesday morning, the Nationals needed a hand and a fifth consecutive double-header sweep -- which would make them the first team to do so in 29 years to get there. A 4-1 daytime win eliminated the showy Philadelphia Phillies from postseason contention and reduced their Magic Number to two. Chicago took a 1-0 lead in Pittsburgh before unraveling in the seventh inning against the hapless Pirates in a seventh consecutive loss, prompting a takeoff on a standard Nationals Park ditty by those in the upper reaches: “B-U-C-S, Bucs! Bucs! Bucs!”
Turner’s first-pitch grand slam to left field followed moments later. He held the follow through, Phillies reliever Jared Hughes threatened to spike his cap and the Nationals jumped into the lead. Turner’s in-dugout dance celebration preceded a celebratory fist-throwing curtain call.
Nine outs later, Daniel Hudson finished the night. They had made it. May felt like another season, another team, another place all together. One of the biggest turnarounds in major-league history was finished.
“These guys deserve everything they got so far,” Martinez said. “They played their butts off all year long and now we’re going to the postseason.”
Strange, but true.
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