WASHINGTON — Ryan Zimmerman spoke to his father recently and thought back to the ninth inning of the National League wild-card game, which by this point felt like a lifetime ago. He identified that moment as the first time, across 1,709 games in 15 major league seasons, that he forgot to breathe.
On Tuesday night, in the final innings of an eventual pennant clincher, it happened again. The lead was shrinking, the pressure was mounting, the anticipation was escalating. Zimmerman thought about all those years with the Washington Nationals — the last-place seasons, the early exits, the annual disappointments — and what an achievement like this would signify.
The Washington Nationals, off to the Fall Classic for the first time in the team’s 15-year history, finally exhaled.
This city, 86 years removed from its last World Series team, finally exhaled.
“Sometimes,” Zimmerman said, “you gotta wait for good things.”
The Nationals’ latest victory over the St. Louis Cardinals was only the latest in a stirring stretch of dominance by a team that was left for dead only five months ago. They didn’t just sweep the National League Championship Series; they never trailed in it. They became the fourth team in baseball history — after the 1914 Boston Braves, the 1973 New York Mets and the 2005 Houston Astros — to go from 12 games below .500 in the summer to the World Series in the fall. And they did so with their 16th win in their last 18 games, a 7-4 victory that began with a first-inning onslaught.
“Where we came from, and what we had to accomplish to get here, it wasn’t easy,” Nationals manager Dave Martinez said. “I’ll be the first to say it.”
The Nationals fired their pitching coach, Derek Lilliquist, on May 2. Twenty-one days later, after suffering a four-game sweep at Citi Field, they stood 19-31, 10 games behind a Philadelphia Phillies team that had recently signed Bryce Harper. Calls for Martinez’s firing grew incessant.
“I remember that I read an article, probably at the end of May,” Nationals starter Anibal Sanchez said, “and they were saying that probably the whole team was going to be traded.”
The Nationals went 74-38 and outscored their opponents by a combined 189 runs over the final 128 days of the regular season, overcoming a late-season heart scare for their manager and the worst bullpen in franchise history. They won eight consecutive games to capture a wild-card spot, rode a Juan Soto single off Josh Hader to advance into the NL Division Series, then used timely hitting and dominant starting pitching to dismantle a Los Angeles Dodgers team that won 106 games.
Nationals manager Dave Martinez thanks his players for what they’ve done this season and proceeds to get showered with champagne.
The Cardinals never stood a chance. Sanchez and Max Scherzer took no-hitters into the seventh to claim the first two games from Busch Stadium. When the series shifted to Nationals Park, Stephen Strasburg dominated in Game 3 and the offense scored seven runs to begin Game 4. The Nationals held a lead in 31 of 36 innings and became the seventh team to never trail in a best-of-seven series.
“It’s been an absolute wild year,” Nationals reliever Sean Doolittle said. “A lot of people counted us out in May, and oh my gosh, this is crazy.”
On the field, standing on a makeshift stage that was assembled within minutes, Martinez held up the NL trophy and provided an aphorism.
“Often bumpy roads lead to beautiful places,” Martinez told a sold-out crowd that didn’t want to go home, “and this is a beautiful place.”
Moments later, in a rambunctious home clubhouse, the Nationals drank from aluminum Budweiser bottles and sprayed Campo Viejo Cava Brut. Howie Kendrick, who hit the grand slam that ended the Dodgers’ season and rode his hot stretch to the NLCS MVP trophy, danced in the middle of a mob and wore the brunt of it. Doolittle, the stabilizing presence for a bullpen that carried a 5.66 ERA but rounded into shape at the very end, waved around his blue light saber. Gerardo Parra, the affable outfielder who brought a lighthearted energy to the dugout, wore his rose-colored sunglasses. Brian Dozier, the veteran second baseman, danced to “Calma,” the popular Latin pop song.
Zimmerman, the steady veteran, stood off to the side and sipped a Bud Light, staying relatively dry.
“That guy could be the mayor of the city tomorrow if he wanted to,” Dozier said of Zimmerman. “They love him here, and they have every reason to because he’s an exceptional player, obviously as everyone knows, and an unbelievable guy. That’s the stuff that means the most to people. When you’re all done, all this stuff, the wins and losses, they kind of fade. But the good teammates, like Ryan, they always stick around.”
Max Scherzer breaks down what the Nationals can do with their starting pitching in the World Series.
Zimmerman was the Nationals’ first-ever draft pick, taken fourth overall out of the University of Virginia in 2004. He was called up in September of the team’s inaugural season in 2005 and has since been the common denominator, there for the back-to-back 100-loss seasons and for the four first-round eliminations. He signed two extensions and never once thought about leaving.
“To me,” he said, “there was never another choice.”
His time with the Nationals has included eight managers and 332 different teammates, many of whom were blowing up his phone late Tuesday night. Many of them were there, with Zimmerman, when the Cardinals put together a four-run ninth inning to eliminate the Nationals in 2012, or when Clayton Kershaw came out of the bullpen to end their season in 2016, or when a late rally against the Chicago Cubs fell just short in 2017.
“I took the October heartbreaks as a step in the right direction,” Zimmerman said. “We had some times here where we knew, on April 1, we weren’t going to make the playoffs.”
The Nationals fell eight games out of first place in 2018, then opened the 2019 season without Harper, the face of their franchise, who instead signed a 13-year, $330 million contract with the division-rival Phillies.
Adam Eaton, who ultimately took over his position in right field, remained confident.
“Look around,” Eaton said when asked why. “Just look around.”
Anthony Rendon took Harper’s place in the No. 3 spot in the batting order and turned himself into an MVP candidate. Juan Soto assumed Harper’s standing as the young phenom and didn’t succumb to the proverbial sophomore slump. Patrick Corbin absorbed Harper’s void in the payroll, signing a six-year, $140 million contract, and joined Sanchez, Scherzer and Strasburg to form a devastating starting rotation.
The Nationals’ starters had attained a 1.59 postseason ERA heading into Game 4, then Corbin became the first pitcher to strike out 10 batters through the first four innings of a playoff game. The 30-year-old left-hander ran into trouble in the fifth, allowing three additional runs in a 32-pitch inning, but Tanner Rainey, Doolittle and Daniel Hudson took it from there.
While others sprayed champagne, Hudson stood off to the side.
“I love having fun with these guys,” Hudson said. “But at this point, I just wanna drink the alcohol — I don’t want it poured on my head.”
The Nationals defied two recently adopted baseball axioms. Mike Rizzo, their seventh-year president of baseball operations, built teams for the sake of immediate contention, disregarding the benefits of tanking and asset building. He assembled a roster that navigated through the 2019 season as the sport’s oldest, at a time when the industry continually skewed younger. Scherzer, and several others, playfully referred themselves as “The Viejos.”
“It just seems like everybody wants younger and younger players and everybody wants to forget about all the old guys,” Scherzer said. “We see it in free agency; we’re not dumb. The fact that we’re the oldest team and we went out and won the National League pennant just shows you that old guys — we bring a lot of value to clubhouses.”
Scherzer could have been talking about Kendrick, who recovered from a torn Achilles tendon to lead the league in batting average.
Or Hudson, the journeyman reliever who came over at the end of July and forced his way into the closer’s role near the end of September.
Or Zimmerman, the stabilizing presence, who battled through a season mired by plantar fasciitis, re-established himself as a starter in October and, in six days, will finally play on the stage he always longed for.
“We came a long way,” Zimmerman said. “And I think sometimes you gotta learn from failure and go through some bad times to get to some good times.”