The strangest title defense in Major League Baseball history came to a close Tuesday night.
The Nationals are no longer the champions.
Something wasn’t right from February on to the season’s full flop. Even when under the sun during optimistic times at West Palm Beach, before the coronavirus pandemic scrambled life, the Nationals were lamenting how their title defense was not being treated like a normal one.
“One of the problems I have with it, it’s [the first spring training day] 2020, and there’s 50 media outlets here and 47 of them are for the Astros who cheated to win the World Series and there’s three here with the current reigning World Series champions,” Mike Rizzo said then. “And that’s not right.”
Things would become worse. The Nationals were the last team off a spring training field when the virus began to spread. It stalled all their party plans. No drawn-out celebration in front of a home crowd, no banner raising with a roar, no flashing their rings in the late-March sun inside Nationals Park. When an Opening Day finally did arrive, Juan Soto was prevented from playing because of what he felt was a false-positive Coronavirus test, the game was called because of rain and the Nationals lost. That Thursday evening was a foreboding harbinger for a washed-out season.
“Just as I was the architect of the world champions in 2019, I’m the president and general manager of the last-place Nationals this year,” Rizzo said in late September. “That stings. We’re going to do everything we can not to have that happen again.”
One of the teams the Nationals beat in 2019 sprinted onto the field with joy Tuesday night. The Los Angeles Dodgers finally have a trophy in the Clayton Kershaw Era. Los Angeles power team after power team previously failed in the postseason, undone by cheaters or a Howie Kendrick grand slam. Manager Dave Roberts screamed after the National League Championship Series that this was the Dodgers’ year. He turned out to be right. It took six games, a forever-to-be-debated Kevin Cash pitching decision and guile from Julio Urías to get to the finish.
The Nationals had long been at home after a 26-34 season concluded a month earlier. They were being overhauled while the postseason moved from 16 teams to two. Coaching staff changes and deep roster alterations took place in Washington as the season made it to what once appeared to be an unlikely conclusion.
In Nationals Park, the white flag raised to show their championship flapped alone Tuesday. Rizzo, who proudly presented the World Series trophy in the front window of his Navy Yard home in the summer, was preparing for 9 a.m. Wednesday when free agency begins. He needs to decide about a flurry of player options -- from Adam Eaton to Eric Thames to Aníbal Sánchez -- going forward. Whether Juan Soto becomes arbitration-eligible is a key factor in spending for this year and beyond. The holes are multiple, the resources capped and help from within limited after a failed year.
All of which will be smack in the Nationals’ face next April. The Dodgers’ home opener is April 9 against the Nationals, one week into the 2021 season. The 162-game champions against the 60-game champions. The two non-cheating champions meet early to remind each other of the struggle to get it all done.