WASHINGTON — All season, we talked about the three super-mega-amazing teams that dominated the regular season. The Astros won 107 games. The Dodgers won 106 games. The Yankees won 103.
The Washington Nationals? They didn’t even win their division.
They stumbled out of the gate to a 19-31 record. After going 82-80 in 2018 in Bryce Harper‘s final year with the club, it looked like another disappointing season was in the works. What good was this supposed stellar rotation if it was backed up by the world’s worst bullpen?
Now that we’ve seen Washington’s rotation in full-throttle October mode, maybe it’s time to view this Nationals team through a different lens. Maybe they are a super team as well, one that has played every bit as well as the Astros and Yankees since late May. The Nationals eliminated the Dodgers in stirring fashion in the NL Division Series and crushed the Cardinals in the NL Championship Series, holding the Cardinals to a .130 batting average in the series. St. Louis never led in any game.
The four Washington starters — Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Patrick Corbin and Anibal Sanchez — each started one game in the series. Sanchez and Scherzer flirted with no-hit bids. The combined pitching line of the four: 26⅓ IP, 13 H, 6 BB, 40 SO, 1 HR, 1.35 ERA. Including only their results as starters, in 10 playoff games, the Fantastic Four is 8-2 with a 2.04 ERA and 88 strikeouts in 61⅔ innings.
Cardinals manager Mike Shildt offered the easiest explanation for what beat his team: “The pitching. The pitching by far. … You average 12 strikeouts a game, but you’re also talking about — it’s just a blend, right? It’s just a blend of their ability. I was just talking to a couple of the guys and just an honest evaluation of it. We could have always done better. [But you’re] talking about three elite strikeout guys in this league. So it’s a combination of things.”
So, yes, the Nationals destroyed the Cardinals. But does that tell us anything? The Cardinals’ offense is not the Astros’ offense or the Yankees’ offense or the Dodgers’ offense. Twenty-one teams have swept an LCS. Only eight went on to win the World Series. The previous five teams — and seven of the past eight — to sweep an LCS went on to lose the World Series. Digging deeper, since 2006, the team that clinched its pennant first has won the World Series just twice — the 2008 Phillies and 2018 Red Sox — making the early clincher 2-11 in that span.
Those results have spawned the “too much time off” theory, the idea that a long layoff leads to too much dead time while your opponent is still playing baseball. That mostly sounds like an argument borne of data and drawing a conclusion, regardless of whether that conclusion actually means anything. It could. But the next five teams that sweep an LCS might go on to win the World Series. We’ll find out. And if the Nationals do lose the World Series, it will probably have a lot more to do with the Astros or Yankees than Washington’s six days of rest.
One thing is for sure: The Nationals are clicking right now. Even that once-maligned bullpen allowed just three hits and one run in 9⅓ innings against the Cardinals. Tanner Rainey, throwing 100 mph heat, suddenly looks like a viable third reliever in front of Sean Doolittle and Daniel Hudson.
“It was awesome to watch those guys do what they did last few innings,” manager Dave Martinez said after the clincher. “I was so proud of those guys, and I’ve said this all along: I’ve asked these guys to do things that they probably didn’t think they could do. Doolittle going out there and getting five outs today. Huddy doing the same thing. Rainey, putting him in in big moments — when everybody thought this guy’s wild, he walks everybody — and giving him the ball. He’s matured so much this year that he’s one of the guys. I mean, he’s got electric stuff. I’m very confident in putting him in the game.”
Stephen Strasburg reacts after the Nationals clinch the first World Series berth in franchise history.
The fact that the Nationals have four quality starters, all of whom are capable of going seven innings if they’re pitching well, also means they don’t have to rely on their bullpen to do too much. It’s an old-school approach to winning in the playoffs: Build around a dominant rotation. (Note that both the Astros and Yankees plan to go with a bullpen game instead of using a fourth starter in the ALCS.)
Then again, if the Astros end up advancing, we know they have Gerrit Cole, Justin Verlander and Zack Greinke, so they can go toe-to-toe with the Nationals’ top three. You can also think back to the Braves’ run in the 1990s and early 2000s, when they made the playoffs 14 consecutive times with a team built around the Hall of Fame pitching trio of Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz but won just one World Series. A great rotation doesn’t guarantee anything.
Indeed, the extra rest for the pitchers could be a benefit. Just to get here, Scherzer, Strasburg and Corbin have each pitched in relief at various times in the postseason. Yes, the Nationals have won 16 of their past 18 games going back to the regular season, but none of that guarantees anything, either.
“People think it’s easy to win in the playoffs,” Ryan Zimmerman said after Tuesday’s win. “First of all, it’s really hard to get to the playoffs, and second of all, you’re playing against the elite teams of the elite league. You’ve got to catch some breaks. I think in the years past, maybe we didn’t catch those breaks. I think we caught some breaks this year, but I think more importantly, we took advantage of those breaks. So kind of made our own luck, I guess, if that’s how you want to put it.”
I love that quote: Make your own luck.
Good luck at that, Nats.