The Washington Nationals took the fast track to ignominy. Baseball lore favors longer-cultivated curses: the Boston Red Sox’s 86 years between World Series championships, the Chicago Cubs’ 108. But the Nationals, established in 2005 when the Montreal Expos moved to D.C. (the team stretches back to 1969 in technical terms only), have stuffed their 15 seasons with heartbreak. Early promise, via the top overall picks Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper in 2009 and 2010, respectively, came quickly to seem like the setup to a repeating punchline. In 2014, the Nationals battled the San Francisco Giants for nearly six and a half hours in one divisional-round game, only to surrender a game-winning 18th-inning home run; they’d lose the series in four. Two years later, they rushed out to a 2–1 series lead over the Los Angeles Dodgers before the Dodgers won the final two games by a run apiece. In all, the Nats had reached the postseason four times prior to this year and failed even to advance a single round, much less win the championship that their talented roster suggested was due.
But after finishing a sweep of the St. Louis Cardinals in the National League Championship Series on Tuesday night, the decade’s most downtrodden playoff team finds itself in the World Series. It got there by winning games it had made a habit of losing: a tense winner-take-all wild-card game against the Milwaukee Brewers, a fifth and deciding game in Dodger Stadium, the breezy four straight against St. Louis. But a deeper reason for the sudden success is harder to pinpoint. This year’s Nationals won only 93 games over the regular season, fewer than any of the earlier playoff versions, after losing the franchise icon Harper in free agency last winter. The bullpen, a bugaboo of Octobers past, amassed a league-worst 5.66 earned-run average. What has changed may be attitude, or ethos, or luck—or the year-by-year vagaries of postseason baseball, when narratives can be nailed down only after the fact.
When the Nationals beat the Cardinals 8–1 in the third game of the NLCS, an on-field reporter asked Anthony Rendon, the team’s third baseman and MVP candidate, about the recent shift in the team. “We’re winning games?” he asked, rhetorically. “I don’t know. Maybe we’re scoring more runs than the other team, but shoot, maybe we’re finally coming around.” If Rendon’s answer lacked the polish of most postgame interviews, it may have gotten closer to the banal truth of the matter. Minus Harper, Washington’s principals are largely the same as in recent seasons. Rendon dispenses doubles and homers, the pair of right-handed aces Strasburg and Max Scherzer pace the rotation, and the prodigious 20-year-old Juan Soto hits cleanup and patrols left. The manager, Davey Martinez, is also a holdover; in his first season last year, the Nationals went a disappointing 82–80. A talented team has won when it counts; it could be as simple as that.
Fans and analysts concoct theories, of course. The most popular is that Harper’s departure has been a blessing. His up-and-down production, the thinking goes, is more than made up for by a new egalitarianism. The biggest moment of the playoff run so far, an eighth-inning rally in the wild-card game to turn a one-run deficit into a one-run lead, was a collaboration: The stalwart Ryan Zimmerman muscled a bloop hit, Rendon walked to load the bases, and Soto drove in the winning runs. Washington fans have added mocking updates to their old Harper jerseys during the playoff run; the slugger’s new team, the Philadelphia Phillies, went .500 and missed the postseason. “What I believe in is it takes more than one person to win the championship,” Martinez said earlier this week, “and that’s been the message since spring training.”
Strasburg’s playoff run, too, has had a pleasingly corrective quality. The Nationals’ first-ever postseason appearance, back in 2012, featured a controversy over their benching of the then-24-year-old flamethrower, who was two years removed from Tommy John surgery. The team wanted to protect its player, along with its investment; as the Nationals lost to the Cardinals in five games, critics wondered why Washington hadn’t sat Strasburg earlier in the season. Seven years later, Strasburg has proved to be the postseason dynamo fans envisioned at the time. He entered in relief to hold the Brewers scoreless for three frames in the wild-card game and, on short rest just three days later, outdueled the Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw in the second game of the division series. Strasburg has allowed only four runs over 22 postseason innings, with 33 strikeouts.
Still, the Nationals’ newfound playoff success is hard to square with its lackluster history. Where Scherzer, a two-time Cy Young winner with Washington, ran into bad luck and shoddy bullpen support in past postseasons, he now looks like his steamrolling self, firing 21 strikeouts over three appearances against the Dodgers and the Cardinals. The Nationals’ comeback win in the deciding game against L.A.—hinging on a pair of eighth-inning homers from Rendon and Soto and an extra-inning grand slam from the veteran Howie Kendrick—mirrored the ways they used to fall short. The Dodgers were, by almost any measure, the superior team, with a deeper pitching staff, a heartier lineup, and a more accomplished bullpen. It’s perhaps to the Nationals’ advantage now that they know how little such designations matter.
Washington will be the underdog in the World Series, no matter whom it faces. The New York Yankees and the Houston Astros each won more than 100 regular-season games and have a claim to the status of baseball’s best team; over the seven-year history of the one-game wild-card playoff, only one team has emerged from that round to win the series. But these Nationals, if imperfect, are a testament to what may be baseball’s most undervalued trait: a willingness to run it back and wait for fortune to shift. “We’ve been here a bunch of times. Never kind of broke through,” said Zimmerman, the longest-tenured National, after the wild-card round. “Finally caught a break tonight.” During the NLCS trophy presentation, Mike Rizzo, the team’s general manager, offered an even more succinct explanation. “Get to the playoffs,” he said, “and you’ve got a puncher’s chance.”