Not right, Nats

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Dave Martinez (left) and Mike Rizzo. The Nats’ GM hasn’t heard a peep about a contract extension or wholly new deal yet despite being in the final year of his current deal. The skipper hasn’t, either, despite having one more year on his current deal.

You built a World Series champion through trials, errors, and very occasional calls for your head on a plate while you stayed your course and kept your eye on the Promised Land. It wasn’t just any World Series champion but Washington’s first Show champion* since the Coolidge Administration.

But your contract expires after the season to follow, however truncated the coronavirus world tour makes it. Wouldn’t you think your bosses would want you to stick around so you can give it your best shot at sustaining that success?

Or, you managed that club from hell to the highest waters possible, despite the not-so-great bullpen you were handed to work with when last year began, keeping them from losing their marble (singular) despite a 19-31 season beginning. They bought your go-1-0-every-day philosophy. You gave them room to go 74-38 the rest of the season and perform feats of derring-do without nets and, sometimes, logic.

You also did it while earning barely more than the minimum major league player’s salary. Wouldn’t you think, too, that the same bosses would want you to stick around so you can give it your best shot at convincing your team their next theme song—Gerardo Parra, after all, has moved onward, taking the “Baby Shark” mojo with him—should be, “I Want to Take You Higher?”

Sure you would. Both of you would. But nobody in the Washington Nationals’ executive suite seems to have moved so much as a fingernail on it. Meaning, as USA Today‘s Bob Nightengale reminds us, that general manager Mike Rizzo is a lame duck in a truncated season and manager Dave Martinez is a year from the same quack.

And, if Rizzo’s a lame duck this year he may not be the one able to move on keeping Martinez above and beyond 2021, presuming the Nats’ success sustains. Which it should, whenever the game returns to something resembling normal, with the extending of Stephen Strasburg, Max Scherzer not exactly showing age just yet, a new young core and several reliable veterans.

This is the GM who took a big hit in 2018 when—in the middle of an already injury-compromised season that also included Bryce Harper’s walk year—he dumped two relief pitchers in circumstances described as dubious at best and disingenuous at worst.

When Shawn Kelley was brought in to pitch near the end of a blowout, looked toward Martinez for guidance about an umpire’s positioning, then spiked his glove after surrendering a home run, Rizzo took it as showing up the skipper even though Martinez didn’t see it that way. He didn’t give Kelley a chance, getting in the reliever’s face then releasing him to be snapped up by the Oakland Athletics.

When Rizzo suspected concurrently that Kelley’s fellow reliever Brandon Kintzler was the source of a Yahoo! Sports story calling the Nats clubhouse a big mess, he didn’t even bother to verify it—he sent Kintzler off to the Chicago Cubs. Both Kelley and Kintzler found themselves back in the races at their new addresses. Kintzler denied emphatically, with then-Yahoo! Sports writer Jeff Passan’s affirmation, that he was the source of the clubhouse mess story.

“If you’re not in,” Rizzo said emphatically, “you’re in the way.” In those moments it looked as though the GM himself could be charged under that statute.

Rizzo stood his ground for better or worse. So did Martinez, whose bullpen management was considered suspect but who was, in fairness, suffering a malady his predecessors had to suffer, too. For the longest time Rizzo was seen as the GM who could and did build solid starting rotations, solid position cores, and reasonable benches, but just couldn’t build bullpens with the same surety.

Martinez never lost his players when all was said and done, either. “They held onto Martinez,” writes Washington Post sportswriter Jesse Dougherty in Buzz Saw: The Improbable Story of How the Washington Nationals Won the World Series, “despite faint calls for his job, and he didn’t spend October [2018] watching the postseason. That would have been one kind of torture. He chose even worse.”

He went everywhere with an iPad that had each of the Nationals’ 162 games loaded onto it. He hunted in Wisconsin, fished outside Salt Lake City, lay in the hammock at his farm outside Nashville, and still carved out time, every day, to relive all the mistakes. There were his mistakes, mostly with the bullpen, such as leaving relievers in too long, or not striking the right balance between analytics and his gut. Then there were his players’ mistakes, such as taking the wrong plate approach, the wrong baserunning approach, or lapsing on defense . . .

He got to West Palm Beach [for spring training 2019] in early February and called for a staff meeting. That’s when he told the coaches about correcting the little things. Mistakes were met with yelling “Do it again!” into quiet mornings . . .

The calls for both Rizzo’s and Martinez’s heads ramped up at that 19-31 start last year. By the time they shoved the Milwaukee Brewers out of the wild card game, upended the Los Angeles Dodgers in the division series (something about a guy named Howie Kendrick detonating a grand slam at the expense of a manager who misread his bullpen even worse), and buried the St. Louis Cardinals in the National League Championship Series, executions were no longer an option.

When Rizzo’s midyear trade acquisition Daniel Hudson struck Michael Brantley out swinging to finish what a gutsy Scherzer started (pitching five innings on fumes and probably lucky to have only two runs pried out of him) and Kendrick overturned (that pole-ringing two-run homer turning a deficit into a lead the Nats never lost) in Game Seven of the World Series, the calls weren’t for executions but canonisations.

Lately Rizzo has been more than just the deft rebuilder. The Show’s contradictory COVID-19 issues of late got a verbal beatdown from Rizzo after Nats’ tests were still delayed 72 hours after July 3.

“We cannot have our players and staff work at risk,” Rizzo said. “Therefore, we have cancelled our team workout scheduled for this morning. We will not sacrifice the health and safety of our players, staff and their families. Without accurate and timely testing it is simply not safe for us to continue with Summer Camp. Major League Baseball needs to work quickly to resolve issues with their process and their lab. Otherwise, Summer Camp and the 2020 Season are at risk.”

He wasn’t alone. The A’s, the Houston Astros, the Los Angeles Angels, the Arizona Diamondbacks, and other teams found themselves canceling workouts or intra-squad games over testing delays. This is no bowl of Raisin Bran they’re dealing with.

Letting Rizzo be the face of the Nats when it comes to coronavirus safety protocols is one thing, Nightengale writes. Letting him sit as a lame duck otherwise isn’t acceptable. “It’s insane,” he continues, “but again this is the same ownership that fired manager Dusty Baker after winning back-to-back division titles. It’s the same owners that told Bud Black he was their new manager, only to offer him a one-year deal. The same owners who have perhaps the smallest and lowest-paid front office staffs in baseball.”

The same owners whose manager earns barely more than infield comer Carter Kieboom would have earned in a full 2020 season.

Nightengale notices something else, too. He notices that, during Rizzo’s tenure, not one Nat—other than longtime clubhouse leader Jayson Werth hit with a reckless driving charge (going 105 on the Beltway)—has made room for even the mildest scandal: “No PED suspensions. No domestic violence suspensions. No discrimination lawsuits.”

No extracurricular, off-field-based high-tech cheating, either. So far. The Astros and the Boston Red Sox may or may not be right that they weren’t the only ones operating illegal intelligence agencies during their World Series-winning seasons. The New York Yankees still have some splainin’ to do about that illicit dugout phone and possible other extracurricular Yankee panky. But nobody’s pointed any such finger toward the Nats just yet. They might be the only part of Washington you can still call scandal free. So far.

When ancient questionable tweets by shortstop star Trea Turner surfaced, Turner simply manned up, said he was young and stupid and not necessarily in that order, and that was that. No muss, no fuss, no attempt to duck, nothing more than a quick apology.

Loyalty is one thing, and Rizzo has that in abundance to his bosses and his players alike, so long as he doesn’t think those players are in the way. But what does it tell you that only two other teams won more games than the 2010s Nats while the Nats finished the decade with the keys to the Promised Land but you can find almost ten teams with better-paid front office people?

Rizzo and Martinez have earned new deals. For Martinez, it might make up for his not being named Manager of the Year over the Cardinals’s Mike Schildt as he should have been for 2019. Schildt lifting a slightly leaky boat isn’t even close to Martinez raising the Titanic.

“[T]his is a proud baseball franchise,” Nightengale writes, “and shouldn’t be run like a construction site, sitting back and making bids to get the cheapest cost.” Maybe some Nats players—who are as loyal to Rizzo and Martinez as those two bosses are to them—could drive the point home further by having their batting helmets re-shaped into construction site hard hats?

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Let us not forget: The Homestead Grays, playing their home games in Washington’s ancient Griffith Stadium, beat the Birmingham Black Barons in the final Negro Leagues World Series in 1948.

Year-end, decade-end clearance

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Call it the Trout Decade if you wish—but wonder when the Angels will provide a team their (and baseball’s) best all-around player can be proud of, after he signed a spring 2019 deal to make him an Angel for life.

The decade about to expire began with the Giants winning the first of their three World Series rings in five seasons. It’s ending with, among other things, the Twins signing two pitchers. One got a little ornery over cops getting a little ornery over his wife’s fanny pack as they went to a football game. The other was traded and released by his new time upon arrival, then played for two 2019 teams while looking to find whether his talent still lurked behind a still-pervasive injury history.

The Tens began with the Astros still in the National League where they were born and finishing fourth in the Central division. It ended with the Astros seven years into their life in the American League (they were the team to be named later in the deal making National Leaguers out of the Brewers), and with three American League West titles, two pennants, one World Series triumph, and a scandal involving who and how they managed to rig a center field camera off mandated feed delay into live-time from-off-the-field sign stealing.

Likewise, the Tens began with one franchise ending its actual or alleged curse of who knew exactly what (the Giants) and finished with the Nationals—perhaps the unlikeliest of world champions (23 May: ten games below .500; the night before Halloween: the first team ever to win a World Series entirely on the road)—becoming the decade’s fifth team to end long enough, strange enough trips without even a single lease upon the Promised Land. But none of them did it quite like the Nats: their postseason run included an unprecedented winning of five elimination games in all of which they actually trailed.

In the more or less middle of it, the Red Sox—who finally broke the actual or alleged Curse of the Bambino in the fourth year of the Aughts—won two World Series to make it four without a Series loss in the new century. Yankee fans and the Empire Emeritus itself are not amused that they have but one Series ring in two new century tries. (Yankee fans usually amuse themselves these days by verbally assaulting opponents battling courageously against depressive illness during postseason series.) Those 26 Series conquests prior to 2009 are just so Twentieth Century.

We learned more than we thought and more than we cared to learn about launch angles, spin rates, actual or alleged juiced balls, and tanking. (The Cubs and the Astros did it with surrealistic success but it didn’t mean anyone else could do it likewise.) That was then: Kill the ump! This is now: Automate the ump! Well, the strike zone, anyway. And the umps are all but going along with test plans for it, according to their new collective bargaining agreement. It’s a welcome development and offers no few possibilities for amusement when finally implemented; or, I bet you, too, can’t wait to see the automated strike caller ejected by the likes of Angel Hernandez and Country Joe West.

Injuries are as much part of baseball as curve balls, but some still defy sense and belief, and sometimes in that order. Blake Snell (pitcher) suffered broken toes when . . . the cement bottom of a bathroom decoration he moved landed on them. Joe Kelly (pitcher) hurt his back during spring training while . . . cooking up some Cajun cuisine. Yoenis Cespedes (outfielder), already down for the season with injuries, fractured his ankle stepping . . . into a hole on his Florida ranch. (The Mets eventually reworked his contract into a 2020 pay cut.) Carlos Corres (shortstop) suffered a cracked rib while . . . getting a back massage. Dellin Betances (relief pitcher, then a Yankee and now a Met) came off the injured list, struck out his first two hitters, then returned to the IL . . . after celebrating the Yankee win with a leap that tore his Achilles tendon.

Then there was former major league pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka. Preparing to pitch in Japan in 2019, Matsuzaka in February met a fan at a meet-and-greet who shook his hand . . . and caused him shoulder inflammation with that hearty yank, not to mention costing Dice-K the season. This may be the first time a pitcher suffered that kind of shoulder injury on account of a hearty handshake. May. But we also said goodbye to an icon from Japan who became an icon in American baseball. Goodbye until Cooperstown, that is, Ichiro.

We also welcomed to the Hall of Fame the first unanimously-elected member and, coincidentally, the best who ever did his particular job (Mariano Rivera), a gentleman who entered games to Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” and built churches off the field among other things. Likewise to a worthy starting pitcher (Roy Halladay) for whom comfort in his own skin was an elusive quarry, but whose widow did him proud accepting his plaque. Likewise, too, to a stoic mound craftsman (Mike Mussina), a composed and deadly designated hitter (“I couldn’t get him out,” The Mariano once said about Edgar Martinez, “my God, he had my breakfast, lunch, and dinner”), a bullish bullpen bull (Lee Smith), and a nice guy (Harold Baines) whose sole credential really was just going to work every day, doing his job with no great shakes, and being baseball’s version of the old-time man in the gray flannel suit.

That was also (way back) then: An Oklahoma University president thundering to his board of directors that goddammit he wants a school his football team can be proud of. This is also now: A need for far more thundering by the Angels’ owner and administration that, goddammit, they demand a team the best all-around player in the game this decade, who’s threatening to be remembered as the best all-around player who ever played it before his career is finished, can be proud of. The bad news is that, try though you might, you can’t clone a lineup of nine Mike Trouts.

And just in case you think calling him the best all-around is hyperbole, perhaps you’d like to see how Trout—who traded his pending 2020 free agency for becoming a $430 million Angel for life last spring—shapes up next to all Hall of Fame center fielders whose careers were all or mostly in the postwar/post-integration/night ball era . . .  according to my concept of real batting average (RBA) and not the old, traditional, incomplete, deceptive batting average–which ought to be called, really, a hitting average.

The RBA formula: total bases (TB) + walks (BB) + intentional walks (IBB) + sacrifices (SAC) + hit by pitches (HBP) divided by plate appearances. Tells you more than just unrealistically-treated hits by official at-bats, you’d think. Tells you everything a batter does to help his team win, I’d think, too. (Total bases also treats your hits the way they deserve to be treated, as in all hits are not equal. And, I say again, why shouldn’t you get credit for intentional walks, since the pitcher decided he’d rather you take your base than his head off?)

And here they are, in ascending order according to their RBAs:

HOF—Center Field PA TB BB IBB SAC HBP RBA
Richie Ashburn 9736 3196 1198 40 130 43 .473
Kirby Puckett 7831 3453 450 85 81 56 .527
Andre Dawson 10769 4787 589 143 142 111 .536
Larry Doby 6299 2621 871 60 45 38 .577
Duke Snider 8237 3865 971 154 84 21 .619
Ken Griffey, Jr. 11304 5271 1312 246 110 81 .621
Willie Mays 12496 6066 1464 214 104 44 .632
Mickey Mantle 9907 4511 1733 148 61 13 .653
Mike Trout 5273 2522 803 199 48 81 .693
HOF AVG             .592

Among other things, look at that table and ask yourselves at last, “Can we please knock it the hell off with all the still-pervasive what-ifs about Mickey Mantle? Once and for all?” And, by the way, take my word for it: I’ve run the numbers on all postwar/post-integration/night-ball Hall of Famers and only one has a higher RBA than Mike Trout. If you guessed Ted Williams (.737 if you’re scoring at home), you win!

Trout was one of three players to sign long-term contracts last spring that will make them richer than the economy of a small tropical nation, more or less, and plant them in one place for just about the rest of their careers. He also opened the mayhem when his Angels, in their first home game following the unexpected death of pitcher Tyler Skaggs, performed the impossible and paid him tribute—with one and all wearing Skaggs jerseys for the game—with a combined no-hitter and concurrent 13-0 blowout of the Mariners. In a bullpen game, even. (Two pitchers, both relievers by normal trade.)

Manny Machado and Bryce Harper didn’t look quite as good as Trout in Years One of their new wealth, but they weren’t necessarily terrible, either. It’s not unrealistic to presume they pressed it a little trying to live up to their new riches, but Machado practically flew under the radar in his Year One compared to Harper, of course, who couldn’t fly under the radar if he used a stealth submarine.

And, yes, his usual gang of critics made a little too much sport—some of it amusing (T-R-A-T-I-O-R, spelled seven Nats fans upon his first return to Washington as a Phillie), some of it pure witlessness—of his former Nationals winning a pennant and a World Series without him. It never crossed their minds to take their eyes off his traditional batting average, look at his real batting average and his 2019 hitting in high leverage, and realise that yes, the Nats would have had an easier time winning with him than with the guy who replaced him in right field:

Real Batting Averages PA TB BB IBB SAC HBP RBA
Bryce Harper, 2019 682 292 99 11 4 6 .604
Adam Eaton, 2019 656 242 65 0 3 9 .486
High Leverage Hitting PA H XBH RBI BA OBP SLG OPS TB
Bryce Harper, 2019 127 35 21 50 .307 .370 .667 1.037 76
Adam Eaton, 2019 87 17 5 16 .236 .305 .333 .638 24

One thing that rankles about Harper: without apology he’s all in favour of making baseball fun again. Baseball’s supposed 2019 themes included “Let the kids play.” Turned out to depend upon whose kids were playing, much of the time. A presumed old-school icon said yes, let them play. Others said not so fast. There were even those leveling death threats against a minor leaguer whose crime was trying to get his butt on base by hook, crook, and any other way he could think to do with his team down to their final three outs on the wrong end of both 3-0 score and a combined no-hitter in the making.

The Yankees declared Kate Smith persona non grata over very dubious charges that she was actually a racist, based on ancient recordings of songs that actually satirised racism. A Mets first baseman, when not smashing a Yankee’s record for home runs in a season by a rookie, told baseball’s government we’ll show you—and delivered a 9-11 tribute in the form of specially-designed commemorative game cleats for his teammates to wear on 11 September. Rookie of the Year Pete Alonso 1, baseball government 0: the Mets in those shoes beat the Diamondbacks with . . . nine runs on eleven hits. Baseball government decided not to fine him or the Mets. How magnanimous of it.

Marvin Miller finally got fed up enough before his 2012 death to reject the idea of Hall of Fame enshrinement. The Modern Era Committee finally said what should have been said long ago: Miller belongs in Cooperstown. His election more or less makes up for the more or less quiet passing of the golden anniversary of baseball’s second shot heard ’round the world—Curt Flood’s Christmas Eve 1969 letter to commissioner Bowie Kuhn, launching the reserve clause challenge he’d lose all the way up to the Supreme Court but win in the breach when Andy Messersmith—pitching without a 1975 contract and taking it to postseason arbitration—finished what Dred Scott in Spikes (as George F. Will called him) started.

Once upon a time, Hall of Famer Tom Seaver answered Hall of Famer Bob Gibson’s knockdown of a teammate in spring training by knocking Gibson down in a regular-season game, then ordering the plate ump to stay out of it while he admonished Gibson, “We can stop right now if you want. But you’d better remember that I throw a lot harder than you do, you old fart.” This year, the harder side of life caught up to both lancers whose courage now fights new enemies. Seaver retired from public life now that he battles dementia borne of Lyme disease; Gibson told his fellow Hall of Famers in a July letter that he’d have to miss the annual Hall ceremonies thanks to battling pancreatic cancer. The prayer kits should be hard at work on their behalf.

“May the Great Umpire call him safe at home,” sportswriting legend Grantland Rice wrote eulogising Babe Ruth. The Great Umpire called enough of a 2019 roll safe at home, including and especially Bill Buckner, who wasn’t made to feel safe at home after his fateful mishap in Game Six of the 1986 World Series, but who eventually came to terms with it and made himself a fine post-baseball life that included a close friendship with Mookie Wilson, the Met whose grounder skipped through Buckner’s too-battered ankles in the first place.

Mel Stottlemyre was the best Yankee pitcher during the worst Yankee decade before becoming a respected pitching coach for the Mets and, in time, the Yankees. Eli Grba was a Yankee who became the first Angel to throw a regular-season major league pitch and, in time, overcame a sad battle with the bottle. Don Newcombe was an outsize pitching talent, the first black pitcher to start a World Series game, but whose worst enemy was himself: unforgiving of his failures more than happy about his successes (he was baseball’s first Cy Young Award winner among other things), and finally conquering the bottle himself to become a beloved Dodger ambassador.

Frank Robinson went from the Hall of Fame (he remains perhaps the greatest all-around player in Reds history and belied their “old thirty” pronouncement to win the Triple Crown in his first season as an Oriole) to becoming baseball’s first black manager and, in the interim, may have invented the kangaroo court in baseball clubhouses. Jim Bouton was a Yankee turned Pilot turned Astro turned author who finished what Jim Brosnan started, revealing from the inside (in Ball Four) that ballplayers in general and Yankees in particular, were only too human, before making a splendid second life as a broadcaster, Big League Chew co-inventor, competition ballroom dancer, and commissioner of a recreational league playing baseball the old-old-1890s-fashoned way.

Joe Grzenda wasn’t allowed to finish saving the final Washington Senators home game ever thanks to an on-field riot of heartsick fans . . . but he kept the ball until the Show returned to D.C., handing it to then-president George W. Bush for the first ceremonial first pitch in Nationals history. “I congratulate all Hall of Famers. Some I played with, and some I helped put there,” said Ernie Broglio once upon a time, having developed a fine sense of humour about being on the wrong end of the most notorious trade (for one such Hall of Famer, Lou Brock) in Cubs history.

A high-school teammate of Broglio’s, Pumpsie Green, was the man who finally integrated the Red Sox on the field, took modest pride in it, and proved a far better man than ballplayer. Bill James about relief pitcher Don Mossi: “He could run ugly, hit ugly, throw ugly, field ugly, and ugly for power. He was ugly to all fields. He could ugly behind the runner as well as anybody, and you talk about pressure . . . man, you never saw a player who was uglier the in clutch.” Jim Bouton about Mossi: “He looks like a cab coming down the street with the doors open.” Reality about Mossi: an effective relief pitcher and, better yet, a successful west coast motelier, passionate gardener, hunter, and camper, and a 25-time great-grandfather. Ugly is in the eye of the beholder.

Al Jackson was an Original Mets lefthanded pitcher, one of the few Casey Stengel really trusted, and the man who helped almost knock the Cardinals out of a 1964 pennant on the final season weekend, when he beat Hall of Famer Bob Gibson with a 1-0 shutout. (After blowing the Cardinals out the next day, alas, the Mets couldn’t finish what they started and the Cardinals snuck into the pennant on the final day.) Joe Keough, outfielder, compromised by injuries, earned his place in Royals history: he won the Royals’ first-ever regular season game with a game-winning pinch hit in the bottom of the twelfth.

Ron Fairly was a solid outfielder for the Dodgers and other clubs before becoming a much-liked broadcaster; between playing and calling games, Fairly’s baseball life involved over seven thousand major league games. And you can bet the record of every last one, every last inning, was kept meticulously by Seymour Siwoff‘s Elias Sports Bureau, which Siwoff bought from its co-founders’ widows to keep alive and make into an institution. Everyone who loves statistics as the life blood of baseball owes Siwoff. And, yes, you can look it up.

There’s no place like home

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Stephen Strasburg makes himself a Nat for life.

The temptation is overwhelming. So for once let’s give in to temptation. Stephen Strasburg, essentially, closed his eyes, clicked the heels of his spiked shoes, and chanted the mantra, “There’s no place like home! There’s no place like home!” And made himself a Washington National for life. Which was the probable outcome, after all, when he first bought a home in the D.C. region and then finished 2019 as the world champions’ World Series MVP.

That, as no few commentators observed in the immediate wake of Monday’s news, is what happens when a pitcher learns within the earliest days of his major league baseball life that he happens to wear the uniform of a team that actually cares about him as a human as well as a pitcher in the long term and not the short range. Enough to withstand a small but incinerating storm of criticism for acting upon it.

That’s what Strasburg learned, not without a little kicking and a little whispering (he doesn’t exactly scream), between 2010 and 2012. When he first hit the old disabled list (known nowadays as the injured list) in July 2010 with a stiff shoulder, hit it again after being in too-obvious pain in the fifth inning of an August start, then underwent Tommy John surgery and missed the rest of that plus the entire 2011 season. When former pitcher-turned-broadcaster Rob Dibble, then a Nats talker, said on the air that Strasburg just needed to suck it up and not call in the cavalry to save his butt every time he felt a little ache, the uproar cost Dibble his job. And helped save Strasburg’s career.

There were none so blind as those who couldn’t and wouldn’t see that there’s no such thing as one size fitting every last pitcher who takes the mound, and that there’s no such thing concurrently as every last pitcher experiencing pain in the limb that earns his keep equaling crystal over iron. It only took baseball thought a century to grok that pitching careers lasting two decades or just beyond were aberrations and not pre-ordained actualities, that you couldn’t and shouldn’t, really, expect every highly talented arm to endure just because some were so fortunate.

Strasburg underwent a surgery named for a man who’d been a quality pitcher for twelve seasons prior to undergoing the first such procedure and twelve more to follow, but a man who wasn’t exactly renowned around the game for throwing like a human howitzer, either. When he returned for 2012, the Nationals elected not to allow their prize, a well-hyped, high-priced product of San Diego State in the first place, to overdo it despite any personal inclination, his first full season back. And once again the hoopla, this time accusing the Nats practically of tanking it on behalf of preserving the crystal, never mind that their 2012 and 2013 shortfalls had nothing to do with the Strasburg Plan.

Strasburg didn’t implode the Nats in Game Five of the 2012 division series, when they followed a 6-0 lead taken in the first two innings by trying to hit six-run homers with every other swing of the bat or by trying to throw three strikes with every pitch from the mound. It wasn’t Strasburg who told the 2013 Nats they could survive without lefthanded relief. He didn’t tell anyone that Bryce Harper could survive trying to make himself the second coming of Pistol Pete Reiser in the outfield just because today’s fences are only slightly more forgiving than the concrete wall in old Ebbets Field, or that the Nats could survive him and other key men (Jayson Werth, Wilson Ramos) on the DL with little substantial reserves on which to call in their absence. And Strasburg wasn’t the genius who told that year’s Nats the starting rotation could take the mound believing nothing better than that they had to throw shutouts just to break even.

There were none so dumb as those who spoke beyond their competence, either. The reports of the Nats’ competitive death were more than slightly exaggerated, and so were those saying their absolute World Series-winning window got slammed shut on their fingers. It took a few years, of course, but there’s something to be said for long-term planning and executing, hiccups (there were plenty enough) to one side, and today the Nats sit as world champions, in large portion because of the 31-year-old righthander who’s graduated through long, hard, smartly managed work into a near-perfect number two starter and a postseason menace.

Set that to one side, however, and listen to those in the know who knew that in his heart of hearts, however tempting might have been the offers that would lure him back to within immediate reach of his San Diego roots (the Dodgers and the Angels were thought to have eyes upon him), Strasburg didn’t want to be anywhere but in Washington. Crunching the numbers is fun and revelatory, especially when you divine as The Athletic‘s Jayson Stark has: “I have to wonder if we should be looking at the actual “value” of this deal by dividing $245 million by seven. That’s because Strasburg was already guaranteed four years, $100 million before he opted out of his last contract. So he actually got three years, $145 million out of the opt-out. That comes to $48.333 million a year. How ’bout that AAV!”

Strasburg didn’t exactly behave after the World Series like a young man eager to hit the road, Jack, as Sports Illustrated‘s Stephanie Apstein records: “The Nationals knew something else: Strasburg wanted this done. During negotiations, he asked for the team to open the ballpark every day so he could work out. So when general manager Mike Rizzo and managing principal owner Mark Lerner identified Strasburg as their top priority this offseason, they decided to act like it. They began discussing a potential deal as the 2019 season closed, and they talked in earnest after Strasburg officially opted out on Nov. 2. That urgency appealed to Strasburg, if not exactly to his agent.”

You can accuse Scott Boras of many things, plausibility be damned as it so often is when his name arises, but not caring about his clients above and beyond the commission dollars they earn him for his efforts isn’t one of those charges. (One of the most plain stupid arguments around Boras essentially denies that this is in fact what agents do, assume the heavy lifting of negotiating for their clients on a properly open job market, which in Hollywood and other entertainment worlds is thought right and proper but in professional sports is thought somehow unseemly if not criminal.)

“To establish a legacy and wear the curly W for his career was something that was very important to [Strasburg],” Boras told Apstein. “And I think it was because he knew that people in this organization cared deeply about him and always cared about his interests and the interests of his family.” Meaning that, for all those moments when Strasburg wasn’t entirely happy about the old Plan, as Apstein puts it, “[S]omewhere along the way, he began to feel grateful that his bosses took the long view. His heart was here, but so was his arm, thanks to those weeks on the bench.”

Now the hardest part will be making sure Strasburg’s long, slow arising up from the stoic presence he was for so long continues. Little by little he learned to loosen up in the dugout and finally couldn’t resist getting drawn into the revelries upon this or that moment’s triumphs. The smiles now far more frequent from his fully bearded phiz can provide backup power in the event of a Nationals Park blackout. As illustrated on Twitter—by the Nats themselves, tweeting the news of his signing not with a look at him on the mound but a look at him hitting and celebrating a mammoth three-run homer against the Braves—Stras gotta dance, too.

Boras isn’t entirely altruistic, of course, and he knows bloody well enough that Strasburg now off the market means his other high-profile pitching client Gerrit Cole stands to make out even more like the proverbial bandit, possibly this week during the winter meetings electrified Monday by the Strasburg heel click, if not by some time in early January. If nothing else Strasburg now prompts the Yankees and the Angels—both of whom are known to be all-in on Cole, both of whom are now bereft of a plausible backup in Strasburg—to remake and remodel the numbers enough that Cole lacking Strasburg’s full track record, quite (Cole’s lifetime ERA: 3.22; Strasburg: 3.17; Cole’s lifetime fielding-independent pitching: 3.06; Strasburg: 2.96), could yet make for spring training a $300 million man.

While you ponder what it all means for Anthony Rendon, in the wake of the Nats saying they could afford either Strasburg or Rendon but not quite both, it’s not yet to rule out that Rendon and the Nats might yet decide it’s worth whatever it takes either or both sides to keep him in Nationals Park, too. The Rangers appear to be in position with Rendon as the Angels and Dodgers, possibly, were with Strasburg before Monday, a homecoming option for the Houston native and a nebula for the Rangers moving into a new climate controlled ballpark and needing such a nebula to help the on-field product and the gate counts. And the Nats still have a bullpen to repair behind Daniel Hudson and Sean Doolittle, which repairs aren’t exactly prone to year-end clearance sales.

Rendon may yet remember that, a year ago, the Nats said publicly they weren’t going to break the proverbial bank for Bryce Harper because among other things they wanted to keep Rendon in the family. (We’ve learned long since that that wasn’t quite the complete story.) And Boras, his agent, too, also has one habit one wishes were known far more broadly than it is, which the Harper talks with the Phillies last winter disclosed: when his client prefers to talk to the incumbent or prospective employer himself, the agent obeys when, as Harper did talking to the Phillies, he’s told politely to keep his big trap shut.

There remains the prospect, perhaps taking his cue from Strasburg, perhaps thinking entirely without that factor, perhaps an equal division between the two, that Rendon, too, will click the heels of his spiked shoes and intone, without once referring to his native Texas, “There’s no place like home! There’s no place like home!”

The champion Nats and affordability

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Anthony Rendon and Stephen Strasburg share a high five in Atlanta during 2019. The Nats say they can’t afford to keep both. Depends on how you look at it? (USA Today photo.)

One of the Nationals’ postseason titans will remain a Nat for 2020 at least. Howie Kendrick’s reward for putting paid to the Dodgers’ 2019 and for bombing the Nats ahead to stay in Game Seven of the World Series is a one-year, $6.25 million deal.

That’s the good news. The bad news for Nats fans is that owner Mark Lerner says they can afford to keep only one of their two homegrowns who are now testing their first serious free agency markets.

At minimum, it seems, either Stephen Strasburg or Anthony Rendon is “affordable” even for the team whose ownership—if you include Lerner’s father, Ted, whose fortune anchors in real estate—is baseball’s second richest (net worth $5.3 billion) at this writing, with Giants owner Charles Johnson first richest (net worth $5.1 billion) pending the Mets’ transition to Steve Cohen’s ownership. (Cohen’s net worth: around $15 billion.)

But they can’t afford both.

“We really can only afford to have one of those two guys,” said Lerner about Strasburg and Rendon to NBC Sports Washington Thursday. “They’re huge numbers. We already have a really large payroll to begin with. So we’re pursuing them, we’re pursuing other free agents in case they decide to go elsewhere.”

Kendrick became a Nat in 2018, lost most of the season to a torn Achilles tendon, regrouped in 2019 for a .966 OPS, and became one of the keys to the Nats’ postseason conquest. His National League Championship Series MVP was merely the roast beef between the slices of boutique bread he surrounded it with before and after. Kendrick makes opposing managers look silly.

He took complete advantage of Dodger manager Dave Roberts almost inexplicably leaving Joe Kelly in for a second relief inning and hit a monstrous top of the tenth grand slam to finish the postseason hopes of the team for whom he played in 2015-2016 following nine better than useful seasons as an Angel.

Then Astros manager A.J. Hinch confounded fans and no few analysts alike by reaching for Will Harris instead of Gerrit Cole, as Game Seven starter Zack Greinke’s tank ran past E following a homer to Rendon and a followup walk to Juan Soto. And Kendrick made what Harris himself called “a championship play for a championship team.” It was the right move (Cole never pitched in relief in his life) made wrong.

Harris threw Kendrick a nasty cutter traveling low and away, and Kendrick sent it on a high line the other way until it went bonk! off the right field foul pole. Kendrick’s shot gave the Nats the Game Seven lead they didn’t relinquish and himself the likelihood that he’ll never have to buy his own drinks in Washington again. And it got him his reward for 2020, where he’ll have all season to accept thanks and, just maybe, deliver enough timely swings to send the Nats toward a successful renewal of their lease to the Promised Land.

But what of Strasburg, their World Series MVP, their postseason lancer whose lifetime 1.46 postseason ERA and 2019 1.37 postseason ERA overall hoists as a big-game pitcher the still young man who was their highest-hyped pitching prospect ever? Who survived second-year Tommy John surgery and assorted injuries to come to become first a good, then an above average, and finally a genuinely great pitcher who thrives the best when the moment’s the biggest?

And what of Rendon, their third-place National League MVP finisher in 2019, whose 1.059 postseason OPS and 25 runs postseason runs produced on the way to the Nats’ World Series triumph was at least as valuable to that conquest? Not to mention a third baseman who’s improved in leaps each season at the plate and at the hot corner?

(Rendon’s OPS from 2017-2019: .952; his real batting average [total bases + walks + intentional walks + sacrifices + hit by pitches divided by total plate appearances] over the span: .630. His lifetime RBA so far: .562. Out of eight Hall of Fame third basemen whose careers happened in the post-World War II/post-integration/night ball era, only four are higher than Rendon, in ascending order: George Brett, Eddie Mathews, Chipper Jones, and Mike Schmidt.)

Kendrick threatened to become the face of the postseason early and often, but Strasburg, Rendon, Max Scherzer, Juan Soto, and Ryan Zimmerman are the arguable none-too-small faces of the Nats. They personify the agenda Thomas Boswell says should be the Nats’ pursuit: “preserving the team’s culture.”

Maybe since-departed (for Japan, where he’ll get to play more than part time) Gerardo Parra brought the Nats the Baby Shark and opened their can of fearless fun factor in 2019. Parra may be crossing the Pacific but nobody wants to dispense with the Baby Shark just yet. Maybe not ever.

Boswell says the Nats must weigh such value as Kendrick, Ryan Zimmerman, and “the versatile” Asdrubal Cabrera, Brian Dozier, Matt Adams, “and the modest but must-re-sign [Daniel] Hudson.” Sensibly enough.

But how about weighing the values of Strasburg and Rendon? And how about marrying those and the aforesaid values to an overall Nats culture of winning and having a blast doing it? No team in baseball was more plain fun to watch in 2019 than the Nats. Even the near-stoic Strasburg learned how to loosen up and shake a tail feather in the dugout.

Beware, Lerners. And general manager Mike Rizzo. You may think the Yankees have eyes for Strasburg, you may think the Phillies have likewise (remember what happened when you tried to get cute with Bryce Harper after 2018), but now the Angels may be laying in the weeds for him.

And that would be awfully tempting for Strasburg. Not just because there’d be a challenge for him in yanking their still-in-need-of-remodeling pitching staff into real competitiveness, but because they play an hour’s drive (assuming the traffic is decent, which is never a safe assumption in southern California) from Strasburg’s roots. Often as not in baseball you can go home again.

He’s not the only one with a California team pondering his presence. Rendon may be getting more than glances from the Dodgers he helped destroy in October. In fact, Strasburg and Rendon are both said to be on the Dodger radar, with incumbent Justin Turner willing to move to first base if Rendon becomes his new teammate. Beware, Nats. If you can’t or won’t keep them, the Dodgers might be only too happy to take them.

This would be called joining them if you can’t beat them. It was Strasburg who held down the fort in division series Game Five and didn’t let an early 3-0 Dodger lead knock him out of his zone. And it was Rendon who opened the game-tying top of the eighth, when Roberts gambled on Clayton Kershaw opening the inning, with a yank into the left field bleachers followed immediately by Soto’s yank into the opposite bleachers.

There’s only one thing that might hold the Dodgers back: luxury tax implications. That and that they’ve rarely handed out contracts for more than five years. And Strasburg and Rendon can leverage their southern California overtures when bargaining with other interested teams. (For Rendon, one is thought the Rangers, a homecoming for him as the Angels or Dodgers would be for Strasburg.)

Something to ponder, too, if the Nats let Strasburg and Rendon walk. Cole has suitors to burn, the Yankees in particular, reportedly, but then Scherzer did, too, a few years ago—and the Nats made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.

It’s not unrealistic to think that losing Strasburg and Rendon alike equals gaining Cole on the mound and, maybe, Josh Donaldson for third base. Donaldson’s still better than serviceable at age 33 and he’s a lot less expensive than Rendon, and Boswell notes that Donaldson’s would be a personality fit in the Nats’ clubhouse.

But losing either Strasburg or Rendon, never mind both, would lose a particular degree of Nats gravitas.

“What cannot and need not be lost is the culture that this Finish the Fight team brought to life,” Boswell concludes. “Rosters change. Lucky and luckless seasons both arrive. But once a team sees what values it wants to embody—and what kind of players and people make that possible—then that’s the lodestar to follow.”

Strasburg and Rendon are two of those players and two of those people. The Lerners may want to keep that very much in mind before they decide once and for all that saving a few bucks is just a little more pressing than keeping what’s already proven aboard.

Maybe Cole, Donaldson, and a couple of other imports would fit the Nat culture. Maybe they really won’t. It’s the crapshoot every great team joins every year, similar to reading the size label on the shirt you bought and discovering the label lied in one or another direction. But a good gambler knows the moment when pushing his or her luck means disaster.

It just might be worth every extra dollar for the Lerners not to push their luck this time. Especially with two franchise faces who just so happen to be far more than just a couple of franchise faces, and have been since the days they were baseball born in Nats jumpers. (Not to mention a third, Zimmerman, who’s been a Nat since the day they were re-born in Washington, and would settle for one more year at a reasonable rate for a part-timer who just can’t hang it up quite yet.)

Contrary to what the giddoff-mah-lawn baseball romantics like to think, loyalty was never a prime baseball commodity. Not before the free agency era, not since, and not exclusively on the players’ sides. (Yes, Mr. Thurber, we can look it up.) This time, the Lerners have a splendid chance to show some to two of the guys who stayed the course and finally helped them reach the Promised Land.

Hinch didn’t blow it, the Nats won it.

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Zack Greinke walks off the field in Game Seven. His manager made the right move to follow. The Nats made the righter one to win.

It’s not going to make the pill any easier to swallow, but it wasn’t A.J. Hinch’s fault. He’s not the reason the Astros lost a World Series they seemed destined to win both going in and while they were just eight outs from the Promised Land.

I know Hinch didn’t even think about bringing Gerrit Cole in if he’d decided Zack Greinke had had enough. I second guessed it myself when first writing about Game Seven. And I was really wrong. Just as you are, Astroworld, to lay the loss on Hinch’s head. The Nats beat the Astros, plain and simple. Through no fault of Hinch’s.

He wasn’t even close to having lost his marble. Singular. He actually managed just right in that moment. It’s no more his fault that Howie Kendrick made him look like a fool right after he made his move than it was his fault the Astros couldn’t bury a Max Scherzer who had nothing but meatballs, snowballs, grapefruits, and cantaloupes to throw, two days after Scherzer’s neck locked up so tight it knocked him out of Game Five before the game even began.

Max the Knife wasn’t even a butter knife starting Game Seven and the best the Astros could do against him was an inning-opening solo home run by Yuli Gurriel and an RBI single by Carlos Correa. Remember, as so many love to bleat, the manager doesn’t play the game. Not since the end of the player-manager era.

And I get the psychological factor that would have been involved if Hinch brought Cole in instead of Will Harris. Likely American League Cy Young Award winner in waiting in to drop the hammer and nail down a win and a trophy. The Nats may have spanked Cole and company in Game One but Cole manhandled them in Game Five.

Even the Nats thought Cole was likely to come in if Greinke was coming out and, as their hitting coach Kevin Long said after Game Seven, they would have welcomed it after the surgery Greinke performed on them until the top of the seventh.

You had to appreciate an anyone-but-Greinke mindset among the Nats. Maybe even think within reason that that kind of thinking—never mind Anthony Rendon homering with one out in the top of the seventh— would leave them even more vulnerable once Cole went to work.

Pay attention, class. Cole pitched magnificently in 2019 and his earned run average was 2.19 with a postseason 1.72. But Harris, believe it or not, was a little bit better: his regular season ERA was 1.50 and his postseason ERA until Game Seven was (read carefully) 0.93.

Cole led the American League with a 2.64 fielding-independent pitching rate and Harris finished the season with a 3.15, but all that means is that Harris depends on the Astros’ stellar defense a little bit more than Cole does. And Harris walks into a few more dicey situations in his line of work. Plus, Cole never pitched even a third of an inning’s relief in his entire professional career, major and minor league alike.

Don’t even think about answering, “Madison Bumgarner.” Yes, Bumgarner closed out the 2014 World Series with shutout relief. And it began by going in clean starting in the bottom of the fifth. Bruce Bochy, who may or may not stay retired as I write, didn’t bring MadBum into a man on first/one-out scenario.

When Hinch said after Game Seven that he planned to use Cole to nail the game down shut if the Astros kept a lead, he was only saying he planned to use Cole where he was suited best, starting a clean inning, his natural habitat. Harris is one of his men whose profession involves walking into fires of all shapes and sizes when need be.

It was need-be time in Game Seven. Even Cole acknowledged as much in the breach, when he said postgame, “We just went over the game plan and he laid out the most advantageous times to use me. And we didn’t get to that position.”

Why lift Greinke after only eighty pitches on the night? Greinke historically is almost as tough on a lineup when he gets a third crack at it, but things really are a little bit different in the World Series. Even if Greinke did surrender a single run in four-and-two-thirds Game Three innings.

He may have performed microsurgery on the Nats through six but he’s not the long distance operator he used to be anymore, either, at 36. And he hadn’t exactly had an unblemished postseason before the Series. He’d been battered by the Rays in the division series; he’d been slapped enough by the Yankees in the ALCS.

As Hinch himself observed after Game Seven ended, “We asked him to do more today than he had done, and pitched deeper into the game more than he had done in the entire month of October. I wanted to take him out a bat or two early rather than a bat or two late.”

And Greinke himself believed the Nats were a lot more tough than their evening full of pre-seventh inning soft contacts at the plate indicated. “They got a good lineup, especially the top of the order,” he told reporters after the game. “It’s tough to get through no matter one time, two times, three times. All of them are tough. Really good hitters up there.”

He got the proof of that when Rendon hammered his 1-0 service halfway up the Crawford Boxes and Juan Soto focused for a walk on 3-1. When it’s winner-take-all you don’t want even a Greinke in a position to fail or for the Nats to be just a little bit better after all.

Hinch wasn’t going to walk his effective but lately erratic closer Roberto Osuna into this moment despite Osuna’s 2.63 ERA, 0.88 walks/hits per inning pitched rate, and league-leading 38 saves on the regular season. Osuna’s postseason ERA was up over 3.50 and his WHIP was reaching 2.00.

So Hinch, one of the most thoughtful and sensitively intelligent managers in the game today, really did reach for his absolute best option in the moment. He was right, I was wrong, and the only thing wrong with Hinch’s move wore a Nationals uniform.

The best teams in baseball get beaten now and then. The best pitchers in the game get beaten. The smartest managers in the game get beaten even when they make the right move. The only more inviolable baseball law than Berra’s Law is the law that says somebody has to lose. And now and then someone’s going to beat the best you have in the moment.

This was not Joe McCarthy starting Denny Galehouse over Mel Parnell with the 1948 pennant on the line.

This was not Casey Stengel failing to align his World Series rotation so Hall of Famer Whitey Ford (whose two shutouts are evidence for the prosecution) could start more than two 1960 World Series games.

This was not Gene Mauch panicking after a rookie stole home on his best pickoff pitcher and thinking he could use Hall of Famer Jim Bunning and Chris Short on two days’ rest in the last days of 1964.

This was not Don Zimmer doghousing Bill Lee, his best lefthander against the Yankees, and choosing Bobby (Ice Water In His Veins) Sprowl over Luis Tiant to stop what became the Boston Massacre in 1978.

This was not John McNamara with a weak bullpen and a heart overruling his head to send ankle-compromised Bill Buckner out to play one more inning at first base in the bottom of the tenth, Game Six, 1986.

This was not Dusty Baker sending an already season long-overworked Mark Prior back out for the top of the eighth with the Cubs six outs from going to the 2003 World Series.

This was not Grady Little measuring Hall of Famer Pedro Martinez’s heart but forgetting to check his petrol tank in Game Seven of the 2003 American League Championship Series.

This was not Mike Matheny refusing to even think about his best reliever, Trevor Rosenthal, simply because it wasn’t yet a “proper” save situation with two on, a rusty Michael Wacha on the mound, and Travis Ishikawa checking in at the plate in the bottom of the ninth in Game Five of the 2014 National League Championship Series.

This was not Buck Showalter getting his Matheny on with the best relief pitcher in baseball (Zach Britton) not even throwing in the pen, never mind ready to go, with two on and Edwin Encarnacion checking in—in a two-all tie in the bottom of the eleventh—against a mere Ubaldo Jimenez at the 2016 American League wild card game plate. Because that, too, just wasn’t, you know, a “proper” save situation.

Hinch did exactly he should have done in the moment if he was going to lift Greinke. He reached for the right tool for the job. So did Mauch, in the 1986 ALCS, with the Angels on the threshold of the 1986 World Series, if he was going to lift Mike Witt but not trust Gary Lucas after the latter plunked Rich Gedman, turning it over to Donnie Moore.

It wasn’t Mauch’s or Moore’s fault that he threw Dave Henderson the perfect nasty knee-high, outer-edge forkball, the exact match to the one Henderson had just foul tipped away, and Henderson had to reach hard and wide again to send it over the left field fence.

It wasn’t Hinch’s fault that Harris threw Kendrick the best he had to throw, too, a cutter off the middle and at the low outside corner, and watched it bonk off the right field foul pole. Just ask Harris himself, as a reporter did after Game Seven: “It’s every reliever’s worst nightmare. [Kendrick] made a championship play for a championship team.”

Better yet, ask Correa, the only Astro somehow to have a base hit with a runner on second or better Wednesday night. “The pitch he made to Howie—I just don’t understand how he hit that out,” he said. “It doesn’t add up. The way he throws his cutter, it’s one of the nastiest cutters in the game. Down and away, on the black, and he hits it off the foul pole.”

Now and then even the best teams in the game get beaten. Now and then even the best pitchers in the game get beaten. Sometimes more than now and then. Nobody was better in their absolute primes this century than Clayton Kershaw and Justin Verlander. Yet Kershaw has a postseason resume described most politely as dubious and Verlander’s lifetime World Series ERA is 5.68.

And even the smartest skippers in the game lose. Hall of Famer John McGraw got outsmarted by a kid player-manager named Bucky Harris in Game Seven of the 1924 World Series, though even Harris needed four shutout relief innings from aging Hall of Famer Walter Johnson and a bad hop over Giants third baseman Freddie Lindstrom to secure what was previously Washington’s only known major league World Series conquest.

McCarthy and Stengel were at or near the end of Hall of Fame managing careers (Stengel was really more of a caretaker as the 1962-65 Mets sent out the clowns while their front office built an organisation) when they made their most fatal mis-judgments.

And yet another Hall of Famer, Tony La Russa, suffered a fatal brain freeze. His failure to even think about his Hall of Fame relief ace Dennis Eckersley earlier than the ninth-inning save situations cost him twice and would have kept the Reds from a 1990 Series sweep, if not from winning the Series itself.

The Astros had seven men bat with men in scoring position in Game Seven and only Correa nailed a base hit. The Nats went 2-for-9 in the same position. And, for a change, left three fewer men on than the Astros did.

The Astros couldn’t hit a gimp with a hangar door. The Nats punctured an Astro who dealt trump for six innings and made two fateful mistakes in the seventh that the Nats took complete advantage of. Then their best relief option in the moment got thumped with his absolute best pitch.

Because baseball isn’t immune to the law of unintended consequences, either. It never was. It never will be. The Astros were the better team until the World Series. The Nats ended up the better team in the World Series. And that isn’t exactly unheard of, either.

Few teams in baseball have been better than the 1906 Cubs, the 1914 Philadelphia Athletics, the 1954 Indians, the 1960 Yankees, the 1969 Orioles, the 1987 Cardinals, the 1988 and 1990 A’s, the 2003 Yankees, and the 2006 Tigers. They all lost World Series in those years. And two of them (’60 Yankees; ’87 Cardinals) went the distance before losing.

Yet the Nats scored the greatest upset in the history of the Series, and not just because they’re the first to reach the Promised Land entirely on the road. The Astros were Series favourites by the largest margin ever going in. And only the 1914 Braves were down lower during their regular season than the Nats were in late May this year.

But that year’s A’s, the first of two Connie Mack dynasties, weren’t favoured as heavily to win as this year’s Astros.

The Dodgers were overwhelming National League favourites to get to this World Series—until Kendrick’s monstrous tenth-inning grand slam. Then the Cardinals were favoured enough to make it—until they ran into a Washington vacuum cleaner that beat, swept, and cleaned them four straight.

The Astros didn’t have it that easy getting to this Series. The ornery upstart Rays made them win a pair of elimination games first. Then it took Yankee skipper Aaron Boone’s dice roll in the bottom of the ALCS Game Six ninth—refusing to walk Jose Altuve with George Springer aboard and comparative spaghetti-bat Jake Marisnick on deck—to enable Altuve’s mammoth two-run homer off a faltering Aroldis Chapman with the pennant attached.

Hinch made the right move in the circumstance and the moment and the Nats made the righter play. The championship play, as Correa put it. The play for the Promised Land. Soto’s eighth-inning RBI single and Eaton’s ninth-inning two-run single were just insurance policies.

When Hinch says that not bringing in Cole was a mistake he’d have to live with, he shouldered a blame that wasn’t his to shoulder. Even if his happen to be the strongest in Astroworld.