A National Exorcism
Demons lurked in the bullpen, on the mound, and in the outfield. It feels like the Nats shook them all off with their 2019 NL Wild Card win.
On the walk to Nationals Park this past Tuesday, I told the friend who was attending the NL Wild Card game with me that the 2019 Washington Nationals were my favorite version of this team since 2012.
I realized later that I made that statement as if the 2019 season was already over — as if I expected the Nats to lose their fifth straight winner-take-all postseason game.
After all, that 2012 team I enjoyed so much — the team that burst on to the MLB contender scene with a 98–64 record and a division title — ended their season in heartbreak. An infamous, groan-inducing, four-run blown save from ex-closer Drew Storen, in Game 5 of the Division Series against the Cardinals, set the table for several more years of painful missed opportunities for the Nats and their fans.
These repeated disappointments, though, all led to Tuesday night’s stunning, extraordinary, heart-stopping 4–3 win over the Milwaukee Brewers in the Wild Card matchup. The win advanced the Nats to a Division Series meeting with the Dodgers, marked the end of a winner-take-all losing streak and, most importantly, exorcised the Nats of their seven-year-old playoff demons.
Baseball reporter Ken Rosenthal made that point shortly after the win:
Rosenthal is right on many levels, though, and last night’s game —just one of 8,000-plus the Nats/Expos have played — went a long way to shaking off haunts like Storen, Bryce Harper, and a missing Stephen Strasburg.
While Storen’s flop is arguably the most high-profile heartbreak in the Nats’ short history as a playoff contender, it’s no secret to baseball fans that the bullpen demons extended into this year for the team.
The 2019 Nats bullpen finished the regular season with a 5.66 ERA — not only the worst bullpen ERA among the 10 playoff teams, but the worst bullpen ERA in baseball. Of 10 relievers on their roster who appeared in at least 20 games, just two (Tanner Rainey and the stellar Daniel Hudson) had ERAs under 4.00. Six had ERAs higher than 4.50.
This will continue to be a problem for the 2019 Nats wherever they go in the playoffs, but last night the unlikely crown jewel of the bullpen, Hudson (who allowed just four runs in 25 innings of work for the Nats this year), shut it down for the final out.
Ironically, Hudson’s career as a starting pitcher looked bright with the Arizona Diamondbacks, but took an ugly turn for the worse — 7.35 ERA, Tommy John surgery, and all — in 2012, the same year Storen began his descent from elite closer to minor-leaguer.
It’s only fitting then that Hudson, in his first postseason appearance since losing as a starter in the 2011 Division Series — to Milwaukee, of all teams — closed out the biggest game of his career and, perhaps, lifted both his and the Nats’ 2012 demons off their shoulders.
He couldn’t have gotten there, though, if manager Davey Martinez hadn’t exorcised another demon an hour earlier.
One man was missing from the Nats bullpen on the day they lost the 2012 Division Series to the Cards, and his absence was controversial at the time.
In hindsight, it seems almost silly that Stephen Strasburg was left off the playoff roster in 2012. Just 23 years old at the time, he finished the season 15–6 with a 3.16 ERA (2.83 FIP). Though his 2011 Tommy John surgery was a concern at the time, since the end of the 2012 season Strasburg has gone 91–48 with a 3.21 ERA. He’s thrown 194 starts and 1,187 innings in those seven years, an average of 28 starts per year and 170 innings per year.
What difference would a few starts in the 2012 Division Series — or a relief appearance in the winner-take-all match — have meant to his trajectory? Impossible to tell, but the debate was acrimonious enough to start a national conversation at the time.
Again, it’s only fitting that it was Strasburg (in relief!) who rescued the Nats on Tuesday night.
Hudson was on the mound for the final out, and the offense timed their comeback just right, but without Strasburg’s steady hand the stunning win may have never happened.
After ace Max Scherzer gave up three runs, four hits, and four walks in five innings, an uncharacteristic struggle, manager Martinez turned to their second ace in the sixth inning to shut things down. And shut things down he did.
Strasburg gave up no runs, two hits, and no walks over three innings. He threw only 34 pitches (26 of them strikes), leaving him ready to take on the Dodgers this weekend.
More importantly, though, he played a part in lifting the Nats out of a funk that they’ve been in since they left him off the playoff roster in 2012.
It’s the other face of the franchise though — well, a former face of the franchise — who represented the biggest demon of all.
The greatest weight the Nats shook off their shoulders on Tuesday night was probably sitting at home watching the game in Philadelphia.
Ever since the Nats drafted Strasburg and Harper in back-to-back years (2009 and 2010), they have faced grand expectations from baseball experts and fans alike.
Strasburg has delivered in the postseason (even before yesterday’s excellent relief appearance). Harper, in his four series with the Nats (and none with the Phillies yet), never really did. As of 2019, Harper’s hitting 16 for 76 in his postseason career (.211) with five home runs and 10 RBI. Some of those home runs came in critical games, but the weighty expectations, and Harper’s frantic energy, wound up bearing down on iteration after iteration of Nationals teams.
Nats fans were understandably stung, though, when Harper left Washington for a division rival and $330 million this past spring. I don’t blame them.
But from “Baby Shark” nonsense to dugout dances, the 2019 Nats were also more relaxed and more fun than I ever saw them with Harper.
And it’s only fitting that the man — well, the 20-year-old kid — that allowed the Nats to move on from Harper delivered a hit that allowed them to move on from their Harper-era playoff demons.
The kid is Juan Soto.
Of course, the Nats offense would have surely been better this year with Harper in it. But the sting of losing Harper — the outfielder, lefty cleanup hitter, and young stud — was largely made null and void by the surprise arrival of Soto — the outfielder, lefty cleanup hitter, and young stud.
Just compare Harper’s first two seasons (2012–2013, ages 19 and 20) to Soto’s (2018–2019, ages 19 and 20).
- Soto: .287/.403/.535, 56 HR, 180 RBI, 7.6 WAR
- Harper: .272/.353/.481, 42 HR, 117 RBI, 8.8 WAR
The Nats may drop three straight games to the Dodgers in the Division Series. They may bring the series to the brink, only to experience heartbreak again. The same things could happen if they make it to the Championship Series, and again to the World Series (though either option would be most welcome, and without precedent in Nats history).
But to some extent, the end result matters a little less than it did a few days ago. By exorcising their demons, the Nats gave themselves and their fans confidence that even if 2019 doesn’t work out (and my, I hope it does), they could be back at this again in 2020.
With just one game, on a 90-degree October night in Washington, D.C., a 32-year-old starter-turned-reliever, a 31-year-old who was robbed of helping his team win their last best chance at a postseason series, and a 20-year-old who helped a city forget about its biggest ex-star delivered something bigger to the Nats than a win. That wasn’t a baseball game. That was an exorcism.