The 1906 White Sox. The 1914 Braves. The 1954 Giants. The 1960 Pirates. The 1969 Mets. The 1987 Twins. The 1988 Dodgers. The 1990 Reds. The 2003 Marlins. The 2006 Cardinals.
The 2019 Nationals?
They’d love nothing more than to join the roll of history’s greatest World Series upsets. And it’ll be about as simple as slicing filet mignon with a paper knife.
Not just because the Astros are their opponents. That much difficulty is a given going in. But difficulty doesn’t quite mean impossibility. And the Nats have already done a couple of impossibles entering the first Washington-team World Series since the year Albert Einstein moved to the United States as a refugee from the Third Reich.
Just picking themselves up from that lousy day in May when they ended their day 19-31, with their manager’s execution orders presumably signed and notarised, may have been impossible enough.
Starting from the following day through today, the Nats have gone 82-40 and scored 700 runs. Only one team in baseball knocked on their door from the same point through today, going 81-41 and scoring 690 runs. Who’s that team? Hint: they have this Series’s home field advantage.
In the postseason? The Baby Sharks faced three elimination games and won. The Astros faced one, and won. Even with the Nats having almost a full week off before going to Houston to start the World Series, they may have a slight momentum advantage.
Especially since they’re probably not even close to feeling the pressure. They’ve already been through the worst of it. Entering this postseason the world said the Nats caved under postseason pressure early. Right? Never even got to the National League Championship Series. Right?
Then the Nats faced an elimination game against the Brewers and won. Then they faced two against the Dodgers—the best-in-the-NL-Dodgers—and won. Then they swept the Cardinals, who had to go down to the wire to win the NL Central by only two fewer than the Nats, in the National League Championship Series. They’re getting pretty damn good at odds defiance.
Division series play began in 1969. The Miracle Mets beat a team that was supposed to smother them in the World Series. Would you like to know how much more often the better regular season team has won the World Series since division play began?
Thomas Boswell exhumes that starting in 1969 the teams whose regular season showed the better records are 23-24 in the World Series. Fifteen of those Series, he adds, began by looking lopsided with one combatant having a 10+ advantage in regular season wins . . . and those “better” teams are 7-8 in those Series.
The Nats won fourteen fewer games on the regular season than the Astros did. A look at the Astros making their third straight postseason and second World Series in three years might tell you the Nats are David against Goliath. But a look at their 2019 postseasons to date might tell you David has a fair chance of evening Goliath out:
The Nats’ division series slash line: .230/.321/.373. (OPS: .694.) The Astros’: .242/.294/.406. (OPS: .700.) The Nats’ NLCS slash line: .274/.327/.415. (OPS: .741.) The Astros’ ALCS: .179/.281/.318. (OPS: .600.)
The Nats’ division series pitching: 4.20 ERA; 1.27 walks/hits per inning pitched. The Astros’: 3.56/1.23. Then the Nats removed the major culprits from the roster. Presumably with orders that Hunter Strickland and Wander Suero are to be shot on sight if they even think about poking their noses out of their holes.
Now, the Nats’ NLCS pitching: 1.25 ERA; 0.64 WHIP. The Astros’ ALCS? Let’s be fair to them, too, and remove their main culprit, Bryan Abreu. (Two earned in two-thirds of a Game One inning and wasn’t seen again in the set.) And, take Ryan Pressly out of the equation for a moment, since his two earned in two-thirds of a Game One inning belie how well he pitched in Games Four and Six. Now look: 2.51/1.12.
Anthony Rendon (Nats) and Alex Bregman (Astros) are as close to a third base match as you can find, with a slight edge to Bregman for a slightly higher regular-season OBP and an OPS a measly .005 points higher. Advantage: Astros by a sliver.
Ryan Zimmerman is the Nats’ grand old man at first base who doesn’t look as good as Yuli Gurriel on paper, but Gurriel’s bat went mostly to sleep until his first-inning ALCS Game Six three-run homer. Still, the late-blooming Gurriel—who’s a year older than Zimmerman and doesn’t look it—had a better regular season. Slight advantage: Astros.
Howie Kendrick (Nats) has just about the same flair for the jaw-dropping drama as Jose Altuve (Astros), but he’s no Altuve at second base and Altuve is still in his prime while Kendrick has produced magnificently as an elder spare part. Advantage: Astros.
Michael Brantley made one decibel-busting play in left in ALCS Game Six but as a left fielder and at the plate he’s no Juan Soto. Advantage: Nats.
Victor Robles has a very promising future in center field if he can stay healthy, but he’s no George Springer. Springer’s only beginning to shake off his early postseason funk and Robles is still on the comeback trail from a division series hamstring tweak. Advantage: Astros.
Adam Eaton is harmless in right field but the Nats actually would have been better off this year with the $330 million guy he replaced. Even with that, he hits slightly better than Josh Reddick where Reddick is slightly more adept with the leather. Advantage: neither.
Both Trea Turner and Carlos Correa are good defensive shortstops. Correa had two bombs in the ALCS but didn’t hit much of anything else; Turner hit more consistently in the NLCS and is a lot more dangerous on the bases when he gets there. Correa had a slightly better regular season OBP but he tried and stole only one base to Turner stealing 35. (Lifetime stolen base percentages: Turner, .841; Correa, .804.) Advantage: Nats.
To the Astros’ Big Three starters—Gerrit Cole, Justin Verlander, and Zack Greinke, to take the likely World Series-opening order—the Nats have a Big Three Plus the Unexpected One: Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, and Patrick Corbin, plus Anibal Sanchez—you know, the guy who opened the NLCS by damn near no-hitting the Cardinals the day before Max the Knife damn near did.
Cole and Verlander are powerful Cy Young Award candidates and Verlander, of course, is a future Hall of Famer with a formidable postseason jacket since he became an Astro in the first place. But while Cole went from possible Cy Young winner on the season to off the charts early in the postseason, Verlander’s been vulnerable ever since his unlikely short-rest division series start against the Rays.
And Greinke got spanked in his only division series start before graduating back to touchable-but-survivable (three earned in Game One; one earned in a short Game Four outing) in the ALCS.
Scherzer and Strasburg look at least the equal of Cole and slightly better off than Verlander this postseason, and Strasburg carries maybe the most quiet postseason pitching mystique of all time into the World Series. The Nats’ previous postseason implosions obscured that Strasburg lifetime in the postseason has a 1.10 ERA.
Scherzer’s going to be pitching for his legacy, too: Max the Knife has a 3.35 lifetime postseason ERA and a 1.03 WHIP. And you can be sure he’d prefer not to let his old Tigers buddy Justin Time have seconds when he hasn’t had his firsts yet.
Corbin and Greinke, those old Diamondbacks buds, haven’t had their firsts yet, either. Maybe the stars, plus managers A.J. Hinch and Dave Martinez, might find a way to tangle them before it’s over?
The Nats may have the option of bumping Sanchez up to Game Three and sending Corbin out to pitch against an Astros bullpen game. Not as scary for Nats fans as it might have been at first.
Corbin ended (temporarily, we think) the Nats’ starters-as-reliever division series technique when the Dodgers beat six earned runs out of him in a third-game relief outing. But he started NLCS Game Four and struck out twelve Cardinals in five innings despite surrendering four earned runs—which the Nats could well afford since tearing seven out of them in the first inning.
The Nats’ bullpen was mostly a regular season disaster. Then, after a couple of division series disasters, they pruned the pen down to Sean Doolittle, Daniel Hudson, rookie Tanner Rainey (who pitched his way into a setup role), and Grandpa Fernando Rodney. Doolittle and Hudson are veterans who can extend when need be; Rainey’s good for the quick shutdown; and Rodney might be in for matchup play but he can still give you an extra inning here and there.
That’s good for the Nats’ mostly effective and long-running starters, since it’s not enough to even think about matching an Astro bullpen game with one of their own. And while the Astros have a mostly shutdown closer in Roberto Osuna, Osuna’s armour did get blown open in the top of the ninth of ALCS Game Six. He needed every foot of Altuve’s ALCS-winning two-run homer to put it back together again.
And both teams were built in pretty much the same way: a rock-solid homegrown core married to mostly imported pitching.
All of which is to say that this isn’t likely to be a short World Series. Six games minimum, seven games more than probable, barring unforeseen circumstances. (And, nothing personal, Astros and your fans, but you look like you’re in leg casts when you dance for celebration. The Dancing Nats you ain’t.) And baseball is nothing if not the thinking person’s game of unforeseen circumstances.
Great misfortune often leads to unforeseen reward, Don Vito Corleone mused in The Godfather. (The novel, not the film.) In baseball, great fortune often leads to unforeseen disaster. Just ask the 1906 Cubs, the 1914 Athletics, the 1954 Indians, the 1960 Yankees (who actually out-scored the Pirates in that World Series, 55-27), the 1969 Orioles, the 1987 Cardinals, the 1988 and 1990 A’s, the 2003 Yankees, and the 2006 Tigers.
It could work both ways this time around. The Astros’ regular season was great fortune. So is their postseason until now. The Nats’ obeyed Corleone’s Law about unforeseen reward after 23 May and in the postseason to date. Both the Nats and the Astros would like to remind each other of another rule by which Don Corleone lived: Every man has but one destiny.
It’s a shame we can’t really know the Nats’ or the Astros’ destinies just yet. But the Astros are only two years removed from a World Series triumph and still hold the title deed to the American League West, which they’re not likely to surrender for another few seasons yet. The Nats haven’t reached the World Series until now in their franchise history, which isn’t as old as the Astros’ but is as old as Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the moon.
And a Washington team has won but one Series—in the same year as the founding of MGM, the introduction of the tommy gun by bootlegging gangsters, the birth of Miracle Mets manager Gil Hodges (who first managed a second Senators team), and the death of Frank (Tinker-to-Evers-to-) Chance.
As much as I love to watch both these teams play baseball, I’ll say it again: we need something better out of Washington than the nation’s largest organised crime family. And we’ve got it with the Baby Sharks. If I had my way, the Astros can just hurry up and wait one more year. It won’t kill them. Pinkie swear.