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Nationals' Dream Season Nothing Short of a Miracle

The Nationals became the first team to mount five come-from-behind wins when facing elimination. If this season wasn’t a miracle, it at least bordered on the supernatural.

HOUSTON – One hundred five years ago, a team won the World Series so improbably that to this day it occupies a sacred place among the 115 champions. The 1914 Boston Braves are forever the Miracle Braves. They came from so far down—16 games below .500—that they are baseball’s patron saints of lost causes.

Older than the toaster, the Miracle Braves have remained alive as the epitome of long shot champions. We conjure them like incense or prayer. It took more than a century, but now they have company.

The 2019 Washington Nationals are world champions that never shall be forgotten, as much for how they did it as who they are. They came from 12 games down (19-31) to win the World Series, a resuscitation bettered only by the Miracle Braves.

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But their ascension is so much more than that. Five times they played a postseason game in which a loss would have ended their season. In each of those elimination games they fell behind. The pitchers they faced in those near-death deficit situations were Josh Hader, the National League relief pitcher of the year; Rich Hill, the lefthanded curveball specialist; and three Cy Young Award winners, Clayton Kershaw, Justin Verlander and Zack Greinke.

The Nationals won all five games by a combined score of 30-11, including 19-0 from the seventh inning on. They became the first team to mount five come-from-behind wins when facing elimination, including a 6-2 comeback to win World Series Game 7 against the Houston Astros. If this season wasn’t another miracle, it at least bordered on the supernatural.

“I do think this was a destined team,” says Washington hitting coach Kevin Long. “What this team has done will go down as one of the most amazing feats any team will ever accomplish.”

At so many turns the Nationals defied the logic of natural baseball law, such as the idea that a ridiculous, stick-to-your-brain toddlers’ tune could become the equivalent of a fight song for a fan base. (“Baby Shark” was their “Hell’s Bells” or “Dirty Water”.) Or that you could even make the playoffs with a bullpen ERA as bad as 5.68, which no team had ever done before.

The manager actually had to watch a World Series game with a cardiologist standing by him. One of the ace pitchers, with his neck and arms locked in spasms, literally fell out of bed on the day he was supposed to start Game 5. The other ace won the World Series MVP, but only because a video coordinator alerted the pitching coach that he was tipping his pitches. The man who closed the series was released by the pitching-poor Angels in spring training. The team suffered the worst three-game home sweep in the history of the World Series.

Somehow it all ended with the first World Series title in Washington since 1924, which was so long ago that Walter Johnson was the winning pitcher of the final game. The span of 62 baseball seasons without a title since then—major league baseball went dark in D.C. for 33 years between the Senators leaving and the Nationals arriving—was the longest running streak except for the 71-year drought Clevelanders have been enduring.

In just the past 15 years baseball has wiped out half of the dozen longest World Series droughts: the 2016 Cubs (107 years without a title), 2005 White Sox (87), 2004 Red Sox (85), 2017 Astros (55), 2010 Giants (55) and 2019 Expos/Nationals (50).

“This year,” Washington manager Dave Martinez says, “I can honestly say nothing would have surprised me. We’ve been through a lot.

“But like I said before, these guys, we stuck together. They believed in each other. I believed in them.”

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Martinez is the votive candle on which the Nationals placed their prayers—or at least the Autumn Wreath aromatherapy candle he burned in his office before every World Series game, home and road. Martinez also plays soothing music out of a boombox that emits mood-friendly lights, sips tea, and speaks in the quiet, optimistic ways of a yogi. Such placidity came in handy when the Nationals lost 31 of their first 50 games, when the pitching coach, Derek Lilliquist, was fired and Martinez and anyone else on the staff knew they could have been next with one more bad week.

“They could have fired us all,” Long says. “We were all in jeopardy of being fired. [Lilliquist’s firing] was very emotional. When he left he said, ‘I know you guys will figure it out.’”

As they began to get injured players back, such as shortstop Trea Turner and third baseman Anthony Rendon, the Nationals held a team meeting and vowed to stay the course.

“I’ll never forget it,” Long says. “It was around that time we were 19-31. We were all in the conference room at home. We just came together and decided, ‘We’re going to be all right.’”

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Martinez always had a calmness about him, even when he was 13 years old and came home from school one day to be told by his parents that they were shipping him from New York to Florida to live with an uncle. His mother and father saw great baseball talent, and wanted it nurtured on groomed playing fields of Florida rather than the concrete and asphalt of upper Manhattan.

Martinez did grow that talent into a 16-year major league career. Five years after retirement, Martinez joined manager Joe Maddon as a guest instructor at the Tampa Bay Rays’ spring training camp. Rays general manager Andrew Friedman was so impressed by how Martinez quickly connected with everyone there—young, old; English-or Spanish-speaking—that he eventually added Martinez to the staff. Maddon brought Martinez to the Cubs in 2015 as his bench coach, and Nationals GM Mike Rizzo hired him for the 2018 season to be Washington’s manager.

Truth be told, these days Martinez’s cool mannerisms also happen to fall under doctor’s orders. Martinez, 55, felt such severe heart pain and dizziness on Sept. 15 that he briefly was hospitalized. He underwent a catheterization. His cardiologists ordered him to cut out caffeine (which meant goodbye to his half-dozen cups of coffee a day) and his post-game glasses of wine, and to sit rather than stand during games.

“My doctors keep wanting me to take a stress test,” Martinez says. “I tell them, ‘Are you kidding me? I’m getting one every night.’”

Watching the Nationals play in the postseason tested any ticker. They made a habit of getting to the brink of expiration, only to rally. No greater stress test developed for Martinez than the fire drill of a seventh inning that happened in Game 6. Washington had been down 2-1 to Verlander but rallied for a 3-2 lead on homers by Adam Eaton and Juan Soto. The seventh looked like a tack-on rally when pitcher Brad Peacock threw wildly to first on a topped grounder by Turner. As first baseman Yuli Gurriel reached for the throw, Turner, who had been running outside the 45-foot running lane, collided with Gurriel’s mitt on his last stride to the bag.

Home plate umpire Sam Holbrook called Turner out for interference. The controversial call became moot when Rendon smashed a two-run homer off Houston reliever Will Harris. Still, Martinez took up his argument with Holbrook after the inning, and did so with such vehemence he had to be restrained by bench coach Chip Hale from getting to Holbrook. Martinez was ejected, whereupon he retreated to his office at Minute Maid Park.

A cardiologist immediately checked on Martinez, who was found to be suffering from a brief bout of shortness of breath. The doctor remained with Martinez as the Nationals closed out what was a 7-2 win.

The winning pitcher, for a second time in the series and a record-tying fifth time in the postseason, was Stephen Strasburg. He recovered from yielding two first inning runs only after Jonathan Tosches, the team’s 37-year-old coordinator of advance scouting, who is assigned to the team’s replay review monitor, noticed that Strasburg was tipping his pitches with the position of his hand and wrist as he gripped the ball in the set position. Tosches remembered how Strasburg had the same problem Aug. 3, when the Diamondbacks hung nine runs on him.

Tosches told pitching coach Paul Menhart, who told Strasburg after the second inning. The pitcher then began flapping his glove as he came set, which covered any pitch-tipping. The Astros didn’t score another run off him, going quietly at 3-for-21 as if they didn’t know what hit them.

“He told me it was—what is the right word here?—just so reassuring to him,” Menhart said about Strasburg. “It gave him such relief and confidence. He said, ‘I got takes on balls they were hitting before, and they were swinging and missing at balls they were spitting on in the first inning.’ It freed him up.”

Strasburg’s win brought the series back into the hands of Max Scherzer, which seemed an impossibility three days earlier.

Scherzer had been scheduled to pitch Game 5, but awoke that morning with his neck and upper shoulder so locked up with spasms that “it was impossible to pitch.” He was so rigid that his wife, Erica, had to dress him.

“The worst was when I woke up and couldn’t move,” Scherzer says. “I couldn’t even lift my arm above my shoulder. I was devastated because I knew I was letting the team down. The only way I got through that was my wife. She kept telling me, ‘Don’t worry. It’s going to be all right. Stras is going to deal and then you’re going to pitch Game 7.’ I’m telling you, there’s no way I get through that without her.”

Said Martinez, “When I saw him Sunday, I thought there’s no way he’s pitching again in the series.”

Said Long, “I saw him in the training room and thought he just had surgery or something. Seriously, he looked terrible. I didn’t know what happened.”

Doctors administered a cortisone shot to relax the muscles in his neck, after which they told Scherzer to do absolutely nothing for 24 hours.

“Do you know how hard that is for Max?” Martinez says. “He was told, ‘Don’t pick up anything. Don’t do anything with your arms.’ But he was good with it.”

He slept with a brace around his neck. Twenty-four hours after the shot, chiropractors worked on the area twice a day, hours at a time. He played catch before Game 6 and felt better.

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The next morning, soon after he awoke, Scherzer sent Martinez a text.

I’m good, it said.

“I got that text from him in the morning and knew he was good,” Martinez said about the morning of Game 7. “Then I saw him on the bus to the ballpark and he had his Max Scherzer game face on. That’s when I really knew he was good.”

Martinez gathered his team briefly before Game 7. Throughout the stretch run and the postseason, Martinez had emphasized to his team the importance of “staying in the moment”—not thinking about how many wins they needed but only the next one. His slogan became, “Let’s go 1-0 today.”

“Hey, I want you guys to just treat this as just another game,” Martinez told them. “It's Game 184, which is hard to do. But we made it this far. Just play one more game. One more 1-0.”

For six innings, the Nationals could do next to nothing against Greinke, who was throwing a one-hit shutout and making a 2-0 lead hold up. Houston ace Gerrit Cole was looming in the bullpen behind Greinke, the choice of Astros manager AJ Hinch to start an inning with a chance to win the World Series.

“When Cole was warming up we were like, ‘Please, bring him in. Anybody but Greinke,’” Long says. “That’s how good Greinke was. I’ve seen Greinke a lot and I’ve seen Greinke good. This was the best I’ve ever seen him.”

Scherzer pitched gallantly. Houston did nick him for two runs, the first when Yuli Gurriel became the first man to homer off Scherzer’s slider since Aug. 8, 2018—an incredible run of 766 consecutive sliders Scherzer kept in the yard. But Scherzer, dodging in and out of traffic, ended his five innings by stranding nine runners.