The Washington Nationals’ Against-All-Odds Championship
In a bizarre World Series in which the home team never won, the underdogs upset the juggernaut Houston Astros for the franchise’s first title.
The crucial moment of the Washington Nationals’ Game 7 World Series victory last night came by way of Howie Kendrick. This year, Kendrick enjoyed the best season of his career, but he’s hardly a superstar, having made just one All-Star team over his 14-year career. The 36-year-old is what baseball fans call a “professional hitter,” a player who can be relied on to make pitchers work, to move runners over, to put the ball in play. In the seventh inning, with the Nationals trailing the Houston Astros 2–1 and a runner on first, Kendrick reached down and sliced a low fastball. It was the swing he’s made a living with; people familiar with his work might have expected the ball to drop in for a single. Instead, it carried high and deep, toward the right-field wall, eventually plunking into the foul pole for a go-ahead home run.
The Nationals would tack on three more runs to win 6–2, bringing a World Series championship to Washington for the first time since the Senators won it in 1924. Kendrick’s homer wasn’t just the turning point; it also seemed to sum up some ephemeral aspect of the Nationals’ victory. The Astros were, on paper, the better-built team: winners of a league-best 107 regular-season games, stocked with power pitchers and MVP-caliber bats. But the historically downtrodden Nationals, who had tallied just 93 wins this year, won the way they had all postseason—with a familiar cast of characters suddenly doing more than they ever had. “Resilient, relentless bunch of guys,” the manager Dave Martinez said after the win. “They fought all year long.”
Take, for example, Max Scherzer, the three-time Cy Young Award winner who started Game 7 for Washington. Originally slated to pitch in Game 5, he had woken up with an immobile neck and had undergone intensive treatment to reach the mound for last night’s game. Though obviously laboring—throwing 103 pitches in just five innings, surrendering four walks and seven hits—Scherzer was able to summon extra action on his slider or oomph on his fastball when he needed it. He escaped having surrendered only two runs, keeping the comeback in play.
Or take Anthony Rendon, the MVP-candidate third baseman whose own solo home run, earlier in the seventh inning, set the stage for Kendrick’s. Rendon has long been the kind of little-known maestro baseball has a knack for producing—outdone in media attention, if not in production, by the former National Bryce Harper—but the Series doubled as his introduction to a broader audience. In Game 6, with Washington trailing three games to two, Rendon had hit another seventh-inning homer, this to stake the Nationals to a three-run lead and help them bounce back from a controversial and momentum-sapping interference call.
The World Series MVP Award went, fittingly, to Stephen Strasburg, whose absence from the 2012 postseason once typified the Nationals’ October ills and whose emergence as a preeminent playoff pitcher keyed their run this year. In wins in Games 2 and 6, Strasburg pitched 14 and a third innings, giving up four runs and striking out 14 Astros, each time out-dueling the future Hall of Famer Justin Verlander. Strasburg became the first pitcher ever to win five games in a single postseason without a loss.
The Nationals’ run through the playoffs took its share of what fans can call either luck or gumption. In all, Washington survived five elimination games; they trailed, at some point, in each one of them. The edge-of-the-seat quality to the World Series is summed up by the fact that, for the first time in history, the home team never won. “This is now the most 2019 Nats thing to ever happen,” the relief pitcher Sean Doolittle said after Game 7. “Another elimination game, another come-from-behind win.” This might also have been the Nationals’ last chance at a title, at least for the near future. Rendon has now become a free agent, the longtime first baseman Ryan Zimmerman is set to do the same, and Strasburg can opt out of his contract if he chooses. The phenom left-fielder Juan Soto spent this postseason hitting timely bombs, returning opponents’ taunts, and protecting Rendon in the batting order; next year, the team could be his.
Houston, in turn, may lose the free-agent pitcher Gerrit Cole this off-season, but the rest of the team—the former and possible future MVPs Jose Altuve and Alex Bregman, the pitchers Verlander and Zack Greinke—will remain largely intact. The Astros’ prospects for future championships look brighter than the Nationals’; they are already set as early favorites to win the next World Series. If Washington’s win ran counter to the macro-trajectories of both franchises, though, it also was a welcome resolution to a World Series shadowed by controversy. Prior to the series, during Houston’s ALCS celebration, the assistant general manager Brandon Taubman had directed a profane outburst in support of the reliever Roberto Osuna—whom the Astros had acquired cheaply in 2018 following a domestic-violence suspension—at a group of female reporters. The organization spent the following days questioning Sports Illustrated’s Stephanie Apstein’s reporting of the event before finally firing Taubman and issuing an apology to Apstein.
In an era of baseball juggernauts—the past three champions have won more than 100 regular-season games, and four teams eclipsed the century mark this season—the Nationals took on the underdog mantle, and all the trappings that come with it. They danced to “Baby Shark” to inspire rallies; they talked unapologetically about the unlikeliness of their continued winning. “You [can] have a great year, and you can run into a buzz saw,” Strasburg told The Washington Post after his team won the NLCS, alluding to the Nationals’ own history of suffering playoff upsets. “Maybe this year we are the buzz saw.”