It stood to reason that if the Nationals could and did flatten their way past the Dodgers in the division series, you had to like their National League Championship Series chances. Especially when one Astro gave them a terrific endorsement going in.
“They’re legit,” said Alex Bregman, the Astros’ third baseman, when he and their Game Five conqueror Gerrit Cole were asked if they were relieved that the Dodgers wouldn’t remain in the postseason picture.
“They’re legit. The Nationals got three legit starters, similar to what the ‘Stros have,” Bregman continued. “We were in the same spring training complex so we face them all the time. Tell you what, it was no shock that they won that series. We know what they’ve got. They’re good.”
When the man who’s liable to add an American League Most Valuable Player award to his trophy case if Mike Trout doesn’t endorses you, take it right to the safe deposit box. Smile a few moments before you slide it in and lock the box back up. Then get back to business.
Not that the Nats need any reminder.
Remember: this is the team that was 19-31 on 23 May, after the Mets humiliated them in a four-game sweep in which they were out-scored 23-13 and the demands for manager Dave Martinez’s head on a plate hit critical mass.
The team that went 80-38 from there, including a season-ending eight-game winning streak against what remained of the Phillies and the Indians and 36-18 in August and September. Not that there weren’t hiccups and missteps along the way, but 36-18 down the stretch is championship-caliber baseball any way you conjugate it.
They held their own against other contenders collectively; their total record against their fellow contenders was 43-43; the best records against them came out of their own division. The Mets went 12-7 against the Nats; the Braves went 11-8.
But the Mets—whose own manager faced season-long calls for his own execution and finally did go to the guillotine a few days after the season ended—didn’t have enough to stay in the races. And the Braves got thatclose to pushing the Cardinals home early from their division series before the Cardinals upended and then demolished them.
The bad news is that Shildt—who had an image as being so mild-mannered normally that he made Clark Kent resemble Donald Trump—was about as gracious in triumph as a flock of vultures swooping upon carrion.
Even allowing that it wasn’t intended for prime time, and wouldn’t have gotten there if a Cardinals spare part hadn’t been foolish enough to capture it on video and post it on Instagram, Shildt’s rant left him an image as an unsportsmanlike winner dancing on the graves of a team his Cardinals left looking like the victims of a terrorist attack in the first inning of their final division series game.
The Dancing Nats—whose dugout high stepping, boogieing, and Gene Kellying after big moments has become a rather endearing trademark not restricted to the kids we should let play but enjoyed even by the grizzled veterans who’ve rediscovered their fountains of youth—would love nothing more than to go Soul Train on Shildt’s and the Cardinals’ graves.
And they may not be alone. Shildt just might have given enough of the nation a case of Natitude.
Shildt has since apologised—for the rant having been made public at all, not for the drift of it; for the expletives undeleted but not the sentiment. “I apologize if my language offended anyone,” the Atlanta Journal-Constitution quotes Shildt as saying.
It is not something I like to represent. It’s not to be excused. I will say that I’m flawed. I have my moments. I grew up in a clubhouse and one of the crosses I bear is my language. I’ve done a nice job over the many years of curbing that. Trying to represent always myself and this organization in a positive light with class and dignity. It’s regretful that that was able to get out.
He still thinks the Braves started some excrement and the Cardinals finished it. (The Cardinals weren’t thrilled about Braves center field star Ronald Acuna, Jr.’s, shall we say, exuberance, which is rich coming from a team that has a couple of exuberants itself.) And he still thinks his Cardinals are going to fornicate up any and all comers and that nobody fornicates with them.
He may be in for a big surprise when the Cardinals and the Nats sink into their NLCS.
Among the four last teams standing now the Cardinals had the weakest regular season record. They were closer to being shoved out of their division series than the Nats really were. Their starting rotation has one bona-fide freshly-established ace (Jack Flaherty), a former ace (Adam Wainwright) who can still pitch up in the apparent sunset of a splendid if injury-disrupted career, and a third starter (Dakota Hudson, no known relation to River Phoenix) who’s just that, a quiet and often efficient third starter.
The Nats have three legitimate aces. When you have Patrick Corbin as your third starter behind Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg, you’re the next best thing to Houston’s Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole, and Zack Greinke. And you might even be equal, almost.
Corbin and Greinke have something in common this postseason. They’d be aces on almost any other staff, and they both got destroyed in division series appearances. Corbin got his redemption shot already; working the division series out of the pen, he atoned for his Game Three disaster with critical, spotless relief in Game Five. Greinke won’t get his shot until he starts Game One of the American League Championship Series.
The Nats can also hit. And how. They took a team .265/.342/.454 slash line into the postseason to the Cardinals’ .245/.322/.415. The Cardinals overall hit just a sliver better than the Nats in the division series rounds, and there’s no arguing with that Game Five early-and-too-often attack, but they’re not as powerful an offense as the Nats overall. If the Cardinals seem like comparative mosquitoes, the Nats seem like a can of Raid.
Put each team in the field, though, and the Cardinals may have a big advantage. They went from being the National League’s worst defense for errors in 2018 to the league’s best in 2019. It was like America going from Pearl Harbour one minute to winning World War II the next. And the Cardinals’ pitchers are mostly ground ballers while the Nats aren’t exactly a pure ground ball-hitting team.
But the Nats have a flair for the dramatic, and we’re not talking eighth-inning game-tying singles or walk-off sacrifice flies. When Dave Roberts pushed his luck with Clayton Kershaw in Game Five, Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto answered almost immediately how nice it wasn’t to fool with either Mother Nature or Kershaw’s sad postseason fortune.
And when Roberts pushed his luck with Joe Kelly and the bases loaded without an out even further, Howie Kendrick—talk about awakening a sleeping giant!—pushed it right over the center field fence and right through the Dodgers’ heads. (Speaking of which, Roberts may not be handed his head after all; the Los Angeles Times says people “with knowledge of the situation” say Roberts will be back in 2020.)
“You got to give credit to the Nationals,” Roberts said post mortem, while accepting the complete blame for the Dodgers’ destruction, “the way they played and came in here and won a series.”
But the Cardinals won’t face a Braves-like kid corps augmented with one smart but vulnerable veteran on the mound. And Martinez and his Nats still have to worry about their entire bullpen not named Daniel Hudson and Sean Doolittle. The Cardinals pray Martinez forgets. Everyone else prays otherwise.
It’s not that the Cardinals’ bullpen is invulnerable. They took a possibly fatal hit losing Jordan Hicks to Tommy John surgery in late June. And their pen men seem to like playing with matches a little too much themselves.
But if you thought Curt Schilling was cruelly emphatic wearing a towel over his head over Mitch (Wild Thing) Williams’s relief, watch Scherzer, Strasburg, Corbin, Sanchez, and Nats Nation whole if anyone but Hudson and Doolittle get the call. They’ll be forgiven for donning hazmat head masks. This NLCS could well come down to which bullpen fights fires with the least full gasoline tanks.
The Nats may have discovered a secret weapon, however: rookie Tanner Rainey. He got the job of getting rid of a pair of righthanded Dodger hitters in Game Five. He got a harmless popup to shortstop and an even more harmless fly out to right. Side retired. Leaving Rainey with a division series jacket of five hitters faced and nothing worse than one base hit. Plus fastball, wipeout slider in the making. One less arsonist for Nats Nation to fear. Maybe.
“To win these type of games against this type of teams, the Los Angeles Dodgers, your stars have to be stars,” said Nats general manager Mike Rizzo in the middle of a celebratory champagne flood. “Our stars were stars tonight, and I think that’s what carried us through.”
These Cardinals aren’t those Dodgers. These Cardinals didn’t just post the single best winning season in franchise history only to be destroyed in the end by a swarm of Nats whose franchise-best season, including their Montreal years, was 2012’s 98-winner. And these Nats don’t have a manager who made them look like sore winners after their arguable finest hour.
Forget life, John Lennon, wherever you are. Baseball is what happens when you’re busy making other plans. Neither the Braves nor the Dodgers planned to be imploded out of this postseason. The Rays just didn’t have enough to finish pushing the Astros through the wall up against which they pushed them; the thumping Twins went limp against the Yankees far sooner.
The Yankees vs. the Astros will combine a duel of the titans with a rivalry for who gets baseball’s version of the Nobel Prize for Medicine. The Nats vs. the Cardinals didn’t exactly get through their seasons unscathed, but their overseers aren’t likely to discover that many missing players in the nearest emergency rooms, either.
This nation’s taken enough on the chin (not to mention the gut and the heart) from Washington ever since the Nats first arrived for 2005. From Washington, not the Nats. The lowest moments in Nats history don’t approach to within even two national borders of the lowest in Washington’s.
And there’d be few things more fun, for a nation that too often seems to have forgotten how to have it, than the prospect of the Nats making it “Washington—First in war, first in peace, and first in the National League” by washing Shildt’s mouth out with soap. If not an appropriately named box of Tide.