The Nationals may be the unlikeliest World Series champions ever.
In the eighth inning of the National League wild-card game, they trailed the Brewers 3–1; their chance of winning was 13%. Capped by a Juan Soto single, they rallied off the Milwaukee bullpen to win 4–3.
Eight days later, in the NL Division Series in Los Angeles, Washington once again trailed 3–1 in the eighth in an elimination game, and now the Nats had just an 11% chance to come back. This time Anthony Rendon joined Soto in providing eighth-inning heroics: Each belted a solo homer to set up Howie Kendrick’s decisive 10th-inning grand slam.
After sweeping the Cardinals to take the pennant, the Nationals found themselves in deep trouble once again in Game 7 of the World Series, trailing the Astros and righty Zack Greinke 2–0 in the seventh inning in Houston. Chance to win: 15%. Rendon homered, Soto walked and then Kendrick came through again, hitting an opposite field, two-run homer off the foul pole in right field to put Washington up for good.
The Nationals, from their lowest point in three postseason do-or-die games, had a 1-in-500 chance to win all three. They did just that, and they stand today as world champions.
Of course, that doesn’t take into account how unlikely it was that the Nationals would make the playoffs at all. Back in May, in the depths of a 19–31 start, they saw their chance just to make the playoffs fall to 25%.
But soon Washington finally had the team in place that GM Mike Rizzo had wanted, the one laden with young stars. Shortstop Trea Turner came off the disabled list on May 17 after suffering a broken finger that cost him six weeks. Rendon was back from an elbow contusion that had cost him 10 days early in the season and sapped his power. The Nationals were an entirely different team when those two played: 74–48 in the regular season, versus 19–21 when one or both of them sat. The two played every game in October, of course, when Washington went 12–5 on its way to a title.
The Nationals had a top-heavy roster that needed the stars to contribute, and the stars showed out in the playoffs. Only 20 years old when the postseason started, Soto was the breakout player of October, showing off his incredible power and preternatural plate discipline. In the wild-card game he homered off the toughest lefty reliever in baseball, Josh Hader; then he beat the best lefthanded pitcher of the era, L.A.’s Clayton Kershaw, to tie Game 5 of the NLDS. The Nationals don’t win without him.
They also don’t win without a player who started his MLB career when Soto was seven years old. Kendrick, once a highly touted prospect with the Angels, was now deep into the “have bat, will travel” part of his career. The 36-year-old hit .344 while starting at three infield positions in the regular season. In the playoffs, all he did was hit a series-winning grand slam against the Dodgers and a Series-winning two- run homer against the Astros. In between? He squeezed in an NLCS MVP award in the sweep of St. Louis.
But the key to the run was the pitching staff. Over the broad sweep of the season, the Nats had the worst bullpen in the NL, pitching to a 5.68 ERA. Dave Martinez solved that problem by burying the bullpen in the playoffs. Just six pitchers—Stephen Strasburg, Max Scherzer, Patrick Corbin, Aníbal Sánchez, Sean Doolittle and Daniel Hudson—accounted for 83% of the team’s postseason innings and 74% of the team’s World Series innings. You can’t be hurt by your bad relievers if you never let them pitch.
Those pitchers who did take the mound came up huge, particularly Strasburg, whose postseason career had been marked before it ever began. In 2012 the Nationals won the NL East in part because Strasburg returned from Tommy John surgery to post a 3.16 ERA in 28 starts. In consultation with the medical staff, Rizzo elected to shut Strasburg down for the season in September rather than put his right arm at any risk, a decision that loomed over the team’s five-game Division Series loss to the Cardinals.
Strasburg would make two All-Star teams after that and finish third in the Cy Young voting in 2017. The ’12 shutdown was never far from anyone’s mind, though, even as he threw three strong postseason starts in ’14 and ’17.
But in the fall of 2019 he became a hero. He came out of the bullpen with three shutout innings in the comeback against the Brewers. Three days later he struck out 10 Dodgers in a 4–2 Game 2 win that evened the NLDS. In all, Strasburg pitched in six postseason games, and the Nationals won every one—that’s half of the 12 wins they picked up along the way. He had a 1.98 ERA in 36 1⁄3 innings. Strasburg’s run through October is up there with anything Madison Bumgarner or Orel Hershiser ever provided a title team.
The Strasburg Shutdown of 2012 has now been replaced by another kind of shutdown in 2019, the one that ended with a World Series MVP award for him and a dog pile on the Minute Maid Park turf. There is perhaps no better hero for a team that overcame long odds, over and over again, to win the first World Series in the 51-year history of the franchise.