WASHINGTON — In years past, Bob Henley would retreat to the sanctity of his backyard in Grand Bay, Alabama, a miniature town about 30 miles southwest of Mobile.
He couldn’t shake the feeling in his stomach which took root in 2012, 2014, 2016 or 2017 — in particular the internal boiling after the outcomes of ‘12, ‘16 and ‘17.
Henley would go out back to a swing and sit by himself. He thought about the season from front to end — mostly the end — letting the Nationals’ failures course through him. What could have been better? What went wrong? What can be fixed next season?
Turn the page? Maybe in February.
“It wasn’t one of those where after a couple days you washed it off and move on,” Henley said. “No. ...It hurts. The goal every year in February is to try to win the division, get to the playoffs and have a chance at something special, win a National League pennant and get to the World Series. When it doesn’t happen, it’s heartbreaking. It’s not just something you can take a pill for and it goes away. It hurts. It hurts because there’s so many people involved. You want the players to reap the benefits of it and ownership, the front office and the minor leagues and the fans most of all.”
Henley, part of the organization since its days in Montreal, sipped his beer Tuesday as he thought it through. To his right was chaos. A handful of the core players who also felt those failures were currently covered in alcohol. They danced, drank, protected themselves with goggles and head gear. Max Scherzer sometimes walked aimlessly, no part of his body dry. Stephen Strasburg picked up the National League Championship trophy and drank from it. Trea Turner carried a tequila-filled container. Ryan Zimmerman enjoyed the beer. Anthony Rendon...was relaxed Anthony Rendon.
They all made it. The length of journey and totality of heartbreak to reach this point varied. Henley worked for Montreal in 2003 before coming to the District. Zimmerman was drafted and began playing for lousy teams in 2005. Rendon was not around for 2012, though he participated in the other three postseason ejections. He hit .150 in the 2016 NLDS then .176 in 2017. He hit .414 in the two series this postseason. Strasburg was shutdown in 2012 and dominant in 2019. This was Turner’s third time in the postseason across just five years in the major leagues.
Once it was over, Davey Martinez delivered a quote while on the platform in the middle of the field: “Often bumpy roads lead to beautiful places. This is a beautiful place.” The crowd roared at his microcosm of the season. But, the statement had wider meaning for Scherzer and the others.
Scherzer came to Washington on a $210 million gamble by the Lerner family. He encountered a long list of “No” before the Lerners said “Yes” to his request for a seven-year contract. This is the fifth year. He’s finished in the top five of Cy Young voting every year, winning twice. He’s been a 6.5 fWAR player on average since arriving. He is, as Aníbal Sánchez said Tuesday, a “hyper person.” And maybe all those things led to his flood of rejoice Tuesday when pointing out the bad times made this good one better.
“It completely does,” Scherzer said. “Because baseball is such a cruel sport sometimes. We played some really good games against some really good teams. We’ve laid it on the line. Those past teams were really good and we’ve come up just an inch short so many times. I’ve been a part of that and been on the losing end and it’s just a gut punch every single time. When we can finally do it, and the way we handled business against the Brewers and Dodgers and Cardinals — just great, great ball clubs in the National League — to finally punch through, man, it’s just an ultimate feeling you can’t describe.”
Turner said it’s a situation he dreamed about. Rendon wondered if flopping in the past made this unlikely burst possible. Zimmerman considered it a cumulative effect — keep knocking, keep kicking, eventually the door opens, even if late.
“It’s definitely a culmination of a lot of guys who have been here,” Zimmerman said. “We’ve had some chances and haven’t come through. But they say you learn from your failures. All those guys that were on those teams are part of this tonight even though they’re not here. This organization has come a long way.”
A long line of photos of former players and managers hang on both sides of the hallway outside the clubhouse. Jim Riggleman stands with a bat on his shoulder, Dusty Baker smiles wide with a toothpick pointed at the camera, Rafael Soriano pulls his jersey up, Jayson Werth is shaggy, Tanner Roark is coming to the plate, the list goes on and on.
They never made it. They never stood soaked in the clubhouse after sweeping the NLCS. Scherzer did. Strasburg did. Rendon did. Turner did. Zimmerman did. Henley did.
“It still hasn’t really sunk in that wow, we’re going,” Henley said. “The whole organization, the city of D.C., we’re going to the World Series.”
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