SportsPulse: The Nationals are going to their first ever World Series and in the process had one of most historic turnarounds we've ever seen in baseball. USA TODAY
WASHINGTON – There is no strain of joy quite like when a team, a town, gets its first taste of World Series glory in at least a generation.
From Kansas City to Cleveland, Houston to Queens, baseball’s circus has in recent years arrived in long-forgotten places with a vigor strong enough to stoke the masses and hold off winter just a few more days.
And now it is our nation’s capital’s turn.
The Washington Nationals have advanced to the first World Series in their franchise history, an odd and curious past that began in Montreal and landed just south of the Capitol in 2005. Their D.C. period was an oft-blue one, marked first by ghastly teams that befitted the District’s sordid baseball history and then by star-crossed clubs that stubbed their toe in winner-take-all games in 2012, 2016 and 2017.
These Nationals, though, are not staggering into the Fall Classic like an oversize Teddy Roosevelt tripping over the finish line of their iconic Presidents’ Race.
After Tuesday night’s 7-4 dispatching of the St. Louis Cardinals in Game 4 of the National League Championship Series, these Nationals come in with credentials that belie their franchise – and their city’s – odd baseball past.
Since their infamous 19-31 start, the Nationals are 81-40 – climbing from the nether reaches of the National League East to claw their way into a home wild card game.
Since entering the playoffs, they have won eight of 10 games, a fascinating mix of derring-do and dominance - erasing 3-1, eighth-inning deficits in win-or-go-home games against the Brewers and Dodgers, followed by an utter splattering of the Cardinals, who never so much as took the lead in this NLCS.
"Bumpy roads lead to beautiful places," once-embattled manager Dave Martinez said atop the championship podium at Nationals Park, "and this is a beautiful place."
And so Washington will see its first World Series since 1933, when the Senators succumbed in five games to Carl Hubbell’s New York Giants.
The Houston Astros or New York Yankees will arrive with greater fanfare and pedigrees – winners of 107 and 103 games, respectively, Houston boasting a World Series title as recently as 2017 and the Yankees with 27 such flags decorating their billion-dollar manse in the Bronx.
These Nationals? Well, they are an appropriate bunch to introduce this delirious, absurd civic celebration called the World Series to a town gradually regaining its baseball bearings.
For this club, imperfection is a feature, not a bug, its terrible start and its collection of game-weathered veterans – viejos, the oldest team in the National League likes to call its most senior members – creating a collective feeling of improbable destiny.
Howie Kendrick? Your National League Championship Series MVP. He's 36 years old, with an iron glove and no true position and never has has never advanced past a league championship series.
Yet he may have more to do with the makeup of this club than anyone.
When Kendrick tore an Achilles tendon in May 2018, an injury-ravaged club looked at its roster of available outfielders and didn’t find an answer until its Class A roster – and a 19-year-old slugger named Juan Soto.
Soto became a good player in 2018 and a superstar in 2019, by which time Kendrick had returned from his Achilles tear and promptly tore the cover off the baseball like never before - setting career marks in slugging (572) and OPS (.966).
"Howie’s got a big strong back," general manager Mike Rizzo said moments after stepping off the championship podium, "because he carried us for three months."
His grand slam in Game 5 of the Division Series is the biggest hit in franchise history. His three doubles in Game 3 of the NLCS put the Cardinals away.
"It just makes it sweet because, as we're getting older, the game keeps getting younger," Kendrick said. "But to see a team like us continue to grind, and I think the mixture of people that we do have is what makes us so good. The chemistry that we do have, we understand each other.
"I feel like being around this long, I wouldn't change anything about the past because this is just -- I mean, it's unbelievable."
Ryan Zimmerman can relate.
The Nationals' original draft pick in 2005 weathered the 100-loss seasons and the many demands that fall upon the lone mainstay of a franchise through years of rebuilding. He entered the month answering questions about these possibly being his last days with the club, his role marginalized by his age (35) and a battle with plantar fasciitis.
Now, he’ll enter this World Series yet another glorious reclamation project, batting .333 with a .913 OPS, a huge Division Series home run and an iconic defensive play to momentarily preserve a no-hitter.
As he cradled a light beer in the booze-fueled clubhouse celebration, someone brings up the year 1933, and without missing a beat, he quips: "You mean the year Howie and I were born?"
The Senators were long before his time, but save for the first five months of the inaugural 2005 season - while he was still at the University of Virginia - Zimmerman has seen it all.
"This organization is fairly young still - 14, 15 years old - but it’s a great city, a great sports town. They showed up. They showed up at these games.
"I feel lucky. A lot of guys play for a long time and don’t get a chance to do it. This is why you play the game, why you work so hard, and why your family sacrifices as much for you as well."
Their manager can relate, too.
Martinez was a rookie manager in 2018, trying to replace the beloved Dusty Baker and guide a playoff-ready team to the next level. Instead, his inexperience was exposed.
A year later, “Nationals manager” had replaced “Redskins quarterback” as the most reviled man in town, with Martinez presumed to take the fall for the 19-31 start.
Instead, he coined a phrase now emblazoned on towels, shirts, and dugout – Stay In the Fight – and made do with a terrible bullpen until reinforcements arrived.
"I'll be the first to say, I never doubted these guys. I really didn't," says Martinez. "All I kept telling myself, hey, stay with them. Stick to the process. Stay positive. Teach. And as soon as everybody gets healthy, we'll make a run. We'll get back in this thing."
Says Zimmerman: "He’s been around baseball his whole life, so he gets it. That’s why you play 162 games. You stay positive, you stay with the approach and you grind it out. His positivity and not wavering from who he was really allowed us to do that."
He missed a week in September to undergo a heart procedure, a sobering reminder of how consuming his job is. Yet all around him were reminders of the game’s joys.
The Nationals dance after home runs. They group-hug the reticent ace, Stephen Strasburg, after he finishes off yet another dominant outing. And they provide a reminder that in this town where matters so heavy are decided every day, a little levity is OK.
Come Sunday, the Nationals will be boarding a plane for Houston or a train to New York, prohibitive underdogs who have seen worse than Gerrit Cole or Aroldis Chapman glowering atop a mound.
On Oct. 25, the District will host its first World Series game in 86 years. It was a long wait for a team to come back, and a seemingly more torturous wait for one good enough to get back in the Fall Classic.
Finally, D.C. has just that. And there couldn’t be a heartier group to deliver that dose of joy only a World Series run can provide.
"We want to keep winning with these guys," says outfielder Adam Eaton. "We love every one of them here – on the road, at home, out to dinner.
"We want to keep this going as long as we can."