Every Nationals fan has probably been saying the same three words about their favorite baseball team over the last few days.
“What the hell?”
If, two weeks ago, you told me that these tenacious, resilient, never-say-die Nationals would be storming back into second place after a nearly perfect homestand featuring the NL-best Giants and the NL East leading Mets and sweeps of both Pennsylvania teams, I would have thought you had lost your mind.
Everything seemed to be falling apart. The Nats’ pitching had been inconsistent, and to make matters worse, their two best starters and most consistent reliever had been put on the IL for assorted injuries. Paolo Espino and Jefry Rodriguez, who seemingly came out of nowhere, had to spot start on occasion. You can make up for bad pitching with good hitting, but the offense was even worse than the pitching. They couldn’t string hits together, and it seemed as if when they had runners in scoring position (especially bases loaded), you could kiss a promising inning goodbye.
Baseball is a strange, streaky, and superstitious sport. There may be no better example of this than Kyle Schwarber’s otherworldly performance over the past 10 games. Dave Martinez decided to move the struggling Kyle Schwarber to the leadoff spot. To Nationals fans, this move was curious. Why should the guy the Nats explicitly brought in to hit bases-clearing home runs bat leadoff? He proved us all wrong. He’s doubled his home run total in the past 10 days, including a stretch of FIVE home runs in two days. I used to think that former Nats outfielder Michael A. Taylor was the master of baseball’s “three true outcomes” (every at-bat is a home run, strikeout, or walk), but it’s clear that Schwarber is a better example.
The offensive production does not end there. Trea Turner is continuing his MVP-caliber season. Josh Bell, Yan Gomes, Starlin Castro, and Josh Harrison are heating up, and doing exactly what they were brought to Washington to do. The Nats have been solid on the mound, too. Without Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg, the Nats had to rely on a rotation of Patrick Corbin, Jon Lester, Erick Fedde, Joe Ross, and either Espino or Rodriguez. All of them had struggled throughout the season; all of them stayed in the fight this past week. Fedde and Ross arguably pitched the best games of their lives against the Giants, and Corbin and Lester reverted back to their original selves during this stretch as well. Tanner Rainey went a few days without giving up an earned run. The resurgence of Brad Hand has revitalized the back end of the ‘pen. Austin Voth has looked really good since he’s come back. They had turned it around, again.
And then came yesterday. Fedde had gone three starts without giving up an earned run, so, like most pitchers, he was due for a bad game. In the second inning, Travis Jankowski hits a three run home run to right field. Ok, down three. It’ll be hard to come back, but that’s doable. Bryce Harper follows with a homer in the third, and the Phillies’ pitcher, Vince Velazquez, drives in a run the following inning. Now the Nats are down 5-0, and a few weeks ago, the game would have been over. But this team begins to chip away. Starlin Castro and Victor Robles kept the line going in the top of the fifth, cutting Philadelphia’s lead to three once again. Up came Schwarber, and of course, he hit a towering three-run opposite field home run to tie the game. Kyle McGowin came in for the bottom of the fifth, but he loaded the bases and eventually gave up the dam-breaking grand slam to Andrew McCutchen. Surely the Nats are out of the game now, right? Nope. Trea Turner drives in two with a single, and then after a Juan Soto walk, Josh Bell gives the Nats the lead with the game’s second grand slam, nearly identical to Schwarber’s bomb the inning prior. The Nats combine for 11 runs in two innings, and as Charlie Slowes pointed out on the radio broadcast, this is the first game in baseball history where both teams hit a three-run homer and a grand slam in the same game. The Phillies are a good baseball team, so they capitalize on poor outings from Sam Clay and Austin Voth to take the lead going into the top of the ninth. The Phillies bring in their closer, Hector Neris. NOW the game is over. There’s no way they could actually come back again, right? Starlin Castro would like a word. The Nats take the lead AGAIN, but for the ninth, they have a problem. Their established closer Brad Hand had thrown a ton of pitches in Monday night’s game (reminiscent of the Rafael Soriano save), so Martinez had to turn to Paolo Espino for his first career save opportunity. In a clean inning, save for the ball that hit Jordy Mercer in the face and gave him a bloody nose, Espino gets the job done. Nats win, 13-12, in the game of the year, a game which they were never supposed to win.
Maybe it’s just “Baby Shark” playing in the background, but this feels a lot like 2019.
I hate to make that comparison. The 2019 Nationals caught fire at the right time and had a lot more starpower to carry them when they needed to, and as I said earlier, baseball is a streaky game where one’s fate can change in a blink of an eye. But bad teams don’t win games like that. Bottom-feeder baseball teams give up when they are down 5-0. As Martinez said in 2019, winners stay in the fight. And that’s exactly what the Nationals did. Yesterday’s win is more impressive than any game they played during the 2019 season, including their epic comebacks against the Mets in the regular season and the Dodgers and Astros in elimination games.
There’s no way Schwarber is going to keep up this pace, but maybe this stretch will spark the rest of the offense to step it up and lead this team back to the World Series. With such a strong NL West, they’ll need to do it by winning the East outright. And the next few games should be a good test of this team’s legitimacy. They’ll play the next four in Miami–while the Marlins are last place in the division at the moment, Nationals hitters will face Sandy Alcantara and Pablo Lopez, who are both having excellent seasons. Then it’s back to DC, where after a makeup game against the Mets, it’s six in a row against last year’s AL and NL champions, respectively. They took one game from the AL-leading Rays earlier this season, but haven’t had to face the Dodgers since Game 5 of the NLDS in 2019. They’ve gotten….well….a tad better since then, adding Mookie Betts and Trevor Bauer to an already potent lineup and deadly rotation. Look for these next few games to be a real test for this Nats team.
I love being an optimistic baseball fan, but I’ll have to admit that I had lost faith in the Nationals. I had started watching college games instead of the Nats game that was on at the same time, because why would I watch a game if it was already likely that my favorite team was going to lose? Not anymore. This team is turning into something special. It’ll sound obvious, but Nationals baseball is fun when we’re winning. I’m invested in regular season baseball unlike I’ve ever been before, because I’ve noticed that they’re catching lightning in a bottle and playing the best baseball of the season. There’s something brewing in DC, some kind of two-headed baseball monster cast with a Baby Shark Anacostia River voodoo magic spell that we only saw emerge from the Southeast water in 2019. Watch this team. Don’t give up on this team. As long as the players are having fun and playing ball the right way, they’ll keep winning. And when this team keeps winning, we all know what they have the capability of doing.