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.