The Nationals' Drought Is Finally Over. Now They Have to Keep Playing

In a circumstance unique to the Nationals, the team struggled for to simply win a postseason series. Now they have, but the journey through October is far from over.
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The drought is meant to end with a moment of catharsis—resolution, release, refreshment. It’s meant to be clear-cut. There’s no question of what has to come next: It’s over. The rain has come.

The Nationals’ drought has ended. They have—at last, after a collection of tortured and accursed tries—won a postseason series. (Sure, they won the wild-card game, but that’s a round, rather than a series; it was its own demon.) Yet there’s hardly space for catharsis here: There’s still plenty of work in front of them.

The 2019 Nationals’ path to the NLCS did not require flipping the script so much as it did picking up the pages of the script and gleefully shredding them before tossing the result into a wind machine calibrated for maximum devastation. This was not a team whose success was assured. It was not a team whose postseason victory seemed clear, let alone likely. The Nationals’ teams from the better part of the last decade had established a certain model—enjoy a strong season, with every reason to logically expect a solid chance to advance in the playoffs, only to crumble in stunningly painful fashion at the start of October, each time without fail. There was no reason to believe that this dynamic was somehow guaranteed to continue from one season to the next. But it was hard not to feel—in some place beyond rationality or numbers or sanity—that this was the case.

Until, finally, it wasn’t.

The Nationals’ run through not just October, but the entire year, has been a wild ride that’s ended on top seemingly against all odds. Compare the graph of the team’s season-long playoff odds...

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...with that of the team’s win probability in the wild-card contest...

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...with that of its win probability in Game 5 of the NLDS.

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It’s crazy! But it’s not a miracle. None of it is. A Max Scherzer-Stephen Strasburg-Patrick Corbin rotation is the foundation of a force of nature—no matter how bad the ‘pen is behind them. (And, please, let’s give some credit where due to Daniel Hudson and Sean Doolittle.) Anthony Rendon has had a season that, in many years, would be worthy of an MVP. Have you seen Juan Soto? And that’s not even to touch on the fact that postseason baseball is a fundamentally different animal that offers far more room for wild chance than anyone would like to think. 

The Nationals’ success can be explained by their baseball; it does not need to turn to the unfathomable or the mystical or the land of the unbelievable. Yet it feels miraculous—on account of a tortured history, a crazy present, and a future that’s incredible by virtue of the fact that it can exist at all.

The Nationals’ drought is over. But how much catharsis can there be when there’s still more ahead? What’s the standard for success when the only conceivable franchise goal, for so long, was simply surviving to the next round? The drought has been broken, but this isn’t the finale. There’s one more round—or, with any luck, two more—for them to play. Bring on the rain.