The manager should have been fired in May, the bullpen was historically awful and the franchise had a penchant for choking on its home field in deciding playoff games.
Fair or not, that was the Washington Nationals’ rap.
Then they waylaid their critics with a dominant performance Tuesday to win the 2019 National League Championship Series. The Nationals are headed to their first World Series after disposing of the St. Louis Cardinals – a proud franchise with 11 World Series titles.
Washington won Tuesday 7-4 before a sellout crowd of 43,976 red-clad lunatics to sweep the four-game series, with the last out setting off fireworks over Navy Yard beyond the centerfield scoreboard.
Starting pitcher Patrick Corbin allowed four runs in five innings but that maligned bullpen, which has discovered October magic, gave up one hit and no runs in four frames.
“So much energy in this place,” reliever Daniel Hudson, who locked down the last four outs, told The Washington Times during the infield celebration. “The fans had my back, the players had my back. No panic in these guys.”
Ironically it was the Cardinals that beat Washington in five games in the 2012 NLDS after general manager Mike Rizzo decided to shut down ace pitcher Stephen Strasburg for the playoffs as he came back from Tommy John surgery.
The brash Rizzo, who at least once confronted umpires after a loss, was ripped in the national media for that decision.
But thanks to the efforts of Strasburg and a stellar starting rotation, the Nationals will bring the World Series to the city for the first time since 1933 when the Senators lost to the New York Giants in five games.
Among the fans on hand Tuesday was local baseball historian Phil Wood.
“I think of all the players I grew up watching in the 1950s and 1960s who never had an opportunity to experience this,” he told The Washington Times.
Washington clinched its first trip to the Fall Classic – which begins Oct. 22 in either New York or Houston – on the 94th birthday of founding owner Ted Lerner. “This is for you,” Lerner told the fans during the post-game title presentation.
“Yeah, we are not done yet,” said third baseman Anthony Rendon, an MVP candidate and pending free agent.
The Nationals scored seven runs in the first inning as catcher Yan Gomes and shortstop Trea Turner drove in two runs each.
Howie Kendrick scored a run in the first and was named series MVP. His career appeared over in May 2018 when he injured his Achilles while chasing a fly ball in left field – a position he rarely plays.
“I feel in love with this city, these guys,” said Kendrick, traded to Washington from the rival Philadelphia Phillies during the 2017 season.
There were tense moments Tuesday as the Cardinals clawed back, but Hudson retired veteran Matt Carpenter with the bases loaded and two outs in the eighth to keep the three-run lead.
Now this Wednesday hump day celebration in the nation’s capital, which hasn’t seen a World Series winner since 1924, harkens back to second-year manager Dave Martinez when he summoned a camel to Florida spring training in 2018.
He wanted to face head-on the Nationals failure to “get over the hump” after losing in the first round of the playoffs four times before he took over. The Nationals were barely a .500 club in 2018 and the camel became a butt of jokes for failed inspiration.
Then many fans wanted Rizzo to fire Martinez this May, when the Nationals were swept in four games on the road by the New York Mets and fell to 19-31 overall.
Those moments disappeared this October, as the Nationals are 8-2 in postseason play and have won 16 of their last 18 games.
“This is a beautiful place,” Martinez told the crowd Tuesday night – exactly one month after he had to leave the dugout due to heart problems. He returned to the team a few days later.
Martinez preached going “1-0 every day” and the club became the second team in nearly 100 years to go from 12 games under .500 to 24 over by season’s end. His hokey saying, about focusing on the present, induced eye rolls from media and some fans as the 2019 club languished before going over .500 for good June 30.
Now, the Nationals can put to bed embarrassments of the past.
That includes “Nationals” being spelled wrong on its uniforms for one game, the stands at Nationals Park filled with fans of the Philadelphia Phillies and New York Mets and the time the lights went out in a game against the Los Angeles Dodgers a few days after a Taylor Swift concert (she was blamed for the malfunction).
But those days seem likes ages ago for a franchise that moved from Montreal in time for the 2005 season and lost 100 games in 2008-09.
“We don’t do it without the support of ownership,” Rizzo said. “But it is all about the players.”
Ryan Zimmerman, a first baseman who has been with the team since 2005, has spent his entire major league career in Washington and dealt with injuries most of that time.
“I was just happy to be healthy and come back,” he said. “You have to earn stuff at this level. I was 20 years old when I got here. We were not very good. We had some chances and couldn’t come through. The fans deserve this as much as we do.”Sign up for Daily Newsletters