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Nationals sweep Cardinals on their way to the World Series

Nationals sweep Cardinals on their way to the World Series

WASHINGTON -- Tuesday night appeared to end early, and in blistering fashion, ostensibly over just after the start.

A chunk of tension, modest doubt, and, eventually, a surplus of joy followed. The Nationals scored seven runs in the first inning to define their cushion for the night about 15 minutes into it. Ceremony -- and hanging on late -- remained.

Washington is going to the World Series. Read it again to absorb and believe it, and don’t feel alone in your challenge to consume that sentence. Managing principal owner Mark Lerner labeled the entire situation “surreal” -- from 19-31, to the Wild-Card Game resurrection, to beating the Dodgers in five, to the NLCS romp -- pregame Tuesday. He joked this is how they planned the whole thing. 

“Mike [Rizzo] talked about it before the season: let's have a real bad start, turn it around, make it really fun for everybody,” Lerner said with a smile.

No team has done this before, recovering from such a dismal 50-game start to advance to the final round of the postseason. The Nationals’ unlikely entrance into the 2019 World Series stands as a first for the organization and Major League Baseball. They bounced off the iceberg back to safe shores. Starting Oct. 22, they will open the best-of-seven World Series in the American League champion’s home thanks to Tuesday night’s 7-4 win. A flight to Houston or train ride to New York is in the offing.

The recovery was so long -- and slow to be believed -- it’s a well-worn tale. May 23 in a tight visitor’s office at Citi Field, Davey Martinez was adamant the season would turn around. Nothing but his voice indicated the idea was believable. Not math. Not the team’s play. Not the available roster. 

“I mean we're not out of it that's for sure, I can tell you that right now," Martinez said after the May 23 loss. “Like I said, everyday we're close, we compete, we're in every game. Now we just got to finish games.”

Martinez was thrown out of the game that night. Wander Suero gave up a three-homer to lose the lead. The morning trip to the stadium was a fiasco after the charter bus driver took the most traffic-filled route. At the end, players were irritated a train ride was on the horizon instead of a flight. The worst-possible outcome remained a daily achievement only to be outdone by the next day’s misery. 

The season pivoted behind hi-jinks, a healthier roster and cleaned-up play. Gerardo Parra introduced uncommon vitality. The starting rotation maintained. Key players -- Juan Soto, Anthony Rendon and Trea Turner -- trickled back into the lineup. The bullpen -- nevermind.

Fixing the groups was enough to push the Nationals into a narrow lane for the postseason. As would-be contenders in the division fell off, Washington lasted long enough to host the Wild-Card Game. A late rally launched them to Los Angeles. Down 2-1 in the series, they found a path to consecutive wins. The four-game NLCS stampede against St. Louis followed.

Seven runs, six hits and one of the most truncated starts in postseason history filled the bottom of the first inning Tuesday, paving a path to wrap up the outcome. St. Louis starter Dakota Hudson threw 15 pitches to seven hitters before his removal. Washington turned the game into a romp before St. Louis recorded two outs. 

Patrick Corbin moved along swiftly with the lead until a stall in the fifth inning. Three St. Louis runs temporarily squelched the stadium’s party atmosphere. The Cardinals were down 7-4, a gap modest enough to restrict blood flow through the middle of the game. 

Tanner Rainey pitched a 1-2-3 sixth inning. Nine outs remained for Sean Doolittle and Daniel Hudson to divide.

Doolittle arrived first via the bullpen cart. Only nine pitches were necessary to move through the seventh inning. He faced the steel of St. Louis’ order, such as it was in the series, in the eighth: José Martínez and Paul Goldschmidt made outs. Marcell Ozuna singled, prompting Doolittle’s removal. Hudson was summoned, assigned four outs, beginning with Yadier Molina, a preeminent face of St. Louis baseball.

Hudson hit Molina with a fastball. He walked Paul DeJong after being ahead 0-2 in the count. With the bases loaded, Matt Carpenter pinch-hit. He rolled a 2-2 pitch to defensive replacement Brian Dozier, just into the game at the same time as Hudson, which Dozier initially knocked down before gathering and throwing. The inning ended. Everyone exhaled.

Hudson returned for the ninth. No one warmed in the bullpen. The entire crowd stood before the inning started. Kolten Wong flew out to left. Pinch-hitter Matt Wieters popped out to catcher Yan Gomes. Tommy Edman flew out to center.

When it was over, a bit after 11 p.m., Hudson threw his hands up and screamed. Everyone streamed out of the dugout and in from the bullpen. The 43,976 in attendance stayed to bask instead of zoom to the Metro. A presentation of the National League championship was to come, one which seemed a million-to-one shot in late May, before so much turned out to be right. Sleeping quietly were 2012, 2014, 2016 and 2017. A new era started Tuesday night, the one in which the Nationals are National League champions. 


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WATCH: Juan Soto blasts longest home run of career for the second time this series

WATCH: Juan Soto blasts longest home run of career for the second time this series

All Juan Soto does is make our jaws drop.

The Nats slugger has been an elite hitter since they day he joined the big league club, but this week, he's tapped into his power unlike ever before. On Monday in New York, he crushed a home run 463 feet, farther than any Met at Citi Field in the Statcast era.

Wednesday night, still against the Mets, he topped himself.


Two days after hitting the longest home run of his career, Soto hit the new longest home run of his career. Wednesday's bomb was also, unsurprisingly, the hardest-hit home run of his career at 112.9 mph off the bat. Couple that with a 33-degree launch angle, and it's no surprise just how far the ball flew.

In one series, Soto has now hit two of the five longest home runs at Citi Field since 2015. Everytime we think Soto can't possibly top himself, he finds away to do just that. At this rate, it won't be a surprise to see him top this list, and plenty of others, when it's all said and done.

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Nationals’ trade deadline needs will hinge on offensive production

Nationals’ trade deadline needs will hinge on offensive production

The 2020 MLB season is just under three weeks old, which means the trade deadline is just under three weeks away. It’s still a bit jarring to be thinking about the deadline less than a month into the campaign but there’s been little about this truncated, mid-pandemic season that’s retained a semblance of normalcy.

It’s been an up-and-down start for the Nationals, who enter play Wednesday at 6-7 and just outside the playoff picture in the NL. Though the team had a less bumpy plan in mind for kicking off its World Series title defense, Washington has avoided major injury and put health scares surrounding stars Juan Soto, Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg behind it.

That said, the Nationals are going to need to start stringing more wins together if they want to secure themselves a favorable spot in the playoffs. Under MLB’s expanded postseason format for this season, the top eight teams in each league qualify for a best-of-three series with the top seed facing No. 8, No. 2 facing No. 7, etc. Teams will have until Sept. 15 to add players to their rosters in order for them to be eligible for the playoffs; the trade deadline is set for Aug. 31.

If the Nationals are going to make a move at the deadline, it’ll likely be for a position player.

Barring any injuries, Washington’s rotation isn’t going to change. Scherzer, Strasburg and Patrick Corbin are the most formidable starting trio in baseball and Aníbal Sánchez will be given every opportunity to show he can still pitch like he did in 2019. Even Austin Voth has impressed as the No. 5 starter, posting a 1.80 ERA over his first two starts.


As for the bullpen, things aren’t going the way the Nationals had hoped and that seems to be working out just fine. Daniel Hudson is the closer after Sean Doolittle’s fastball velocity dropped and Will Harris struggled in two appearances before landing on the IL with a groin strain. Meanwhile, contributions have come from unexpected places. Tanner Rainey has improved his control and looks settled into a set-up role. Javy Guerra, Sam Freeman, Kyle Finnegan and Ryne Harper have all been reliable in the middle innings. Wander Suero just returned from the IL.

The Nationals could conceivably add another late-inning reliever, but they’re already facing a personnel crunch. The eight aforementioned active relievers plus long man Erick Fedde make up the team’s relief corps. That number will be cut down by one once Harris returns and would have to drop again if another arm is added. Left-hander Roenis Elías also remains on the IL and hopes to return this season.

Offensively, there are plenty of areas Washington could improve. Kurt Suzuki and Yan Gomes have combined to hit just .205 with zero home runs out of the catcher spot. Eric Thames has played almost exclusively against righties and has yet to show the power that landed him a free agent contract last offseason. Adam Eaton has a .577 OPS on the year while playing questionable defense in right field.

They’ve only played 13 and a half games—a tarp malfunction forced Sunday’s game to be postponed—so the Nationals probably aren’t going to make any knee-jerk reactions based on early returns. But Thames and Suzuki are free agents after this year. Eaton could be too if the Nationals decline his $10.5 million option for 2021. As the trade deadline draws closer, their production will be worth watching as they could be replaceable.

If they do dip into the catcher market, some potential targets for the Nationals include the Boston Red Sox’s Christian Vázquez (.798 OPS since start of 2019), James McCann of the Chicago White Sox (.804 OPS since 2019) and the Kansas City Royals’ Salvador Pérez (missed 2019, .825 OPS this year).


Pérez would be the most expensive with a $14.2 million salary next season, which would likely mean the Royals would have to eat some money to make a deal work. McCann became expendable after the White Sox signed Yasmani Grandal last offseason while Vázquez could be a valuable trade piece for Boston while it retools its roster.

The first base market is much more expansive. Mitch Moreland (Red Sox), Todd Frazier (Rangers), Christian Walker (Diamondbacks) and Jesús Aguilar (Marlins) are just a few names that could be on the move. It’s still uncertain just how active this year’s deadline will be, but there will be plenty of talent available if teams are willing to pull the trigger.

It’s worth mentioning that the Nationals may be inclined not to partake in the trade deadline at all. Even if they’re in line to make the playoffs, one bad draw for the opening three-game series could spell the end of their season. General manager Mike Rizzo and Co. may decide it’s not worth sacrificing future assets to contend for a championship in a shortened season.

For now, the Nationals are still evaluating the players they already have. A lot can happen over the next two and a half weeks and they’re going to want to work with as big of sample sizes as possible before making moves that could have future implications.

The pressure is on the offense to show that the front office has nothing to worry about.

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