The Turnaround of the Washington Nationals


(Photo: Geoff Burke/USA Today Sports)

Ansh Suchdeve

Despite starting off the season with a horrendous 19-31 win-loss record, the Washington Nationals clawed their way back up to second place in the National League East division and made a miraculous playoff push.

For the first time in franchise history, the Nationals advanced past the National League Division Series ( NLDS), and are currently playing the St. Louis Cardinals in the National League Championship Series (NLCS), with a 2-0 lead in the best-of-seven series. With the help of NL MVP candidate Anthony Rendon, and young outfielder Juan Soto, the Nationals offense reigned supreme over the powerhouse Los Angeles Dodgers in five games, after defeating the Milwaukee Brewers in the Wild Card Game.

The Nationals opened their season and immediately had issues with the bullpen (relief pitchers), as historically, it was one of the worst in baseball for the better part of the season. Closing pitcher Sean Doolittle was considered the saving grace of the bullpen, until he would eventually wear out in terms of stamina and began to regress as the season progressed. When asked about his usage rate and average fastball velocity by Todd Dybas of NBC Sports Washington, Doolittle responded, saying that “everybody gets a little tired around this point of the season, but if I stay in my mechanics and don’t try to overthrow, I can still get that life and deception on my fastball.” 

As a result of the underachieving bullpen, the Nationals won just 19 of their first 50 contests of the season, and manager Davey Martinez’s job was in jeopardy. Many considered the Nationals to be sellers at the annual trade deadline, where they would trade away key assets to playoff contenders to recoup some of the significant losses of the season.

However, on May 24, everything changed for the Washington Nationals. The Nationals scored 12 runs in a comeback win over the Miami Marlins, in what was considered to be the turning point of the season. The entire team gained a major confidence boost, and suddenly, everything started to click. The Nationals offense and starting pitching carried the team to 46 wins after the all-star break, and all of a sudden, the Nationals clinched a postseason spot, and were scheduled to host the Wild Card Game against the Brewers. The aforementioned starting pitching was led by Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, and Patrick Corbin, who all accumulated over 200 strikeouts, becoming the only team to have three starting pitchers throw 200 or more strikeouts this season. Not to mention, third-baseman Anthony Rendon slashed .319/.412/.598, had an OPS+ (on base percentage and slugging, when adjusted for the player’s ballpark) of 153, and clobbered 34 home runs en route to becoming an MVP candidate for this season.

(Photo: Rob Carr/Getty Images)

The Nationals elected Max Scherzer as the starting pitcher for the Wild Card Game. Scherzer would surrender three runs in his start against Milwaukee, and the Nationals eventually fell behind by a score of three to one in the bottom of the eighth. However, an offensive rally ensued, as Nationals outfielder, Michael A. Taylor, was hit by a pitch, which led to Ryan Zimmerman singling later in the inning. Then, Anthony Rendon drew a six-pitch walk, and the comeback was capped off by a Juan Soto single to right field which scored pinch-runner Andrew Stevenson. Brewers right-fielder Trent Grisham mishandled the ball off an unnatural bounce, which led to Rendon scoring, giving the Nationals a three to one lead in the inning. Afterward, relief pitcher Daniel Hudson closed out the game with a three-out save to help the Nationals advance to the NLDS, where they would play the Los Angeles Dodgers. After the Wild Card Game, Nationals pitcher Max Scherzer spoke about playing in a best-of-five game series to Mark Zuckerman of MASN Sports, saying “in the five-game series, you’ve got to get creative and you’ve got to take the ball at every single chance you get.”

Moreover, the Nationals and Dodgers split the first four games of the series, setting the stage for a winner-take-all game five, where the winner of the contest would take on the Los Angeles Dodgers. In game five, an unsung hero for Washington delivered in extra innings. After beginning the postseason with just five hits in 22 attempts (.227 batting average) and three errors, second baseman Howie Kendrick delivered an eventual game-winning grand slam in the top of the tenth inning to give the Nationals a seven to three lead. Once again, Washington advanced in the postseason and they would play the St. Louis Cardinals in the NLCS.

(Photo: Harry How/Getty Images)

In the league championship series, the Nationals have already claimed victory in the first three games of the series, needing one more win to advance to the World Series. This would be their first appearance if they advance. Furthermore, the Nationals pitching has been the biggest factor in the NLCS, as they’ve surrendered just one run over the first three games of the series. On the other hand, the Nationals offense has been led by superstars Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto, who have both accounted for 12 runs batted in and 31 total bases through nine games in the postseason. Next, the Nationals will host the Cardinals in game four of the NLCS, with a chance to appear in their first World Series if they win in tonight’s contest.

Overall, the Nationals were doubted by many this season, losing their superstar outfielder Bryce Harper to the Philadelphia Phillies when he signed with the team for a 13-year, 329 million-dollar contract. After the Nationals lost Harper, they surprisingly performed better without him, winning 93 games despite having had one of the worst bullpens across baseball, with a 5.77 earned run average (ERA) as of September 12. Undeterred by losing Bryce Harper, the Nationals have undoubtedly had one of the most unique and impressive seasons in baseball history (93 win season and reached the NLCS), regardless if they win the World Series.