As far as mottos go, the Nationals’ choice for the 2019 season, “Stay in the Fight,” had, perhaps, felt a little too on the nose for a team that historically couldn’t. Consider the cheerful banalities of recent champions like the 2018 Red Sox (“Do Damage”), 2017 Astros (“Earn It”), and 2016 Cubs (“Embrace the Target”) and, well, you could think that the Nationals begging (themselves? the baseball gods?) for a chance to avert falling to pieces was a touch fatalistic.
For now, though, the motto is secure: For the first time in the Nats’ 15-year existence, they have advanced in the postseason, dispatching the Brewers 4-3 in the NL wild-card game. They did this before a curiously zen home crowd, given that the Nationals trailed all the way from batter no. 2, Yasmani Grandal, who launched a two-run homer off Max Scherzer on the first pitch he saw, to the last out in the bottom of the eighth inning, when Juan Soto shot a bases-loaded single off Josh Hader—Josh Hader—and brought home three runs. This, it bears mentioning, was just the second single Hader had given up to a left-hander this year. “I believe in miracles,” music crooned over the PA in the moments after the game ended. Indeed.
By the start of the 2019 season, heartbreak had become part of the Nationals’ story. Four times they’d made it to the postseason in the space of just seven years, and four times they’d been bounced out in the NLDS: In 2012, by the Cardinals; in 2014, by the Giants; in 2016, by the Dodgers; and in 2017, by the Cubs. By this fifth attempt to go deep in October, the idea of a Washington Curse had become more or less canonical. Each time the Nationals entered the playoffs, the team bordered on juggernaut status, winning the NL East each time with 98, 96, 95, and 97 wins, respectively. The playoffs were theirs to lose, and that’s exactly what they did, once, twice, three times, four times, with each loss seemingly more wrenching than the last.
So this time, when the division went instead to the Braves, leaving the Nats to slug it out with the Brewers in the play-in hellscape of the wild-card game, it seemed obvious. Of course despair awaited the Nationals. Of course ace Scherzer, whose lights-out certainty has been a little less certain since he spent most of July and August out with back and shoulder injuries, gave up a walk and then a home run to start the first inning, and a solo home run to begin the second. Of course Juan Soto would fumble an Eric Thames hit to left field, allowing him to get on base. Of course Anthony Rendon, welcomed to the plate with a stadium-wide chant of “MVP! MVP!” after the PA system briefly gave out in the fourth inning following an apparently inadvertent activation of the fire alarm, would be part of a clean one-two-three inning for Brewers starter Brandon Woodruff. Of course manager Davey Martinez would accidentally shave off his playoff beard. Of course Martinez’s decision to start Scherzer over the red-hot Stephen Strasburg would look dreadful the moment Stras emerged in relief, for the very first time in his career, to stifle the Brewers. Of course, all of it.
The Nationals’ preferred 2019 narrative is that they are underdogs. And indeed, the team had a decidedly rough start to the season, falling to 12 games under .500 by May 23—a fog of hopelessness that perhaps had something to do with the Nats’ worst attendance record since 2011. As recently as mid-June, the team was in fourth place in the NL East. Instead, the season played out in much the same fashion as Tuesday’s game, with the Nationals mounting a sudden, exhilarating, and definitive return to dominance. The Nats, after all, are rather good at scoring late in the game.
The Nats’ win also represented something of a changing of the guard. Ryan Zimmerman, who was drafted by the Nationals in 2005 and is the only member of the 2019 team to play in all four of those dreadful NLDS losses, was brought in to pinch-hit in the eighth, setting up Soto’s fateful knock. As former Washington Post Nationals scribe Chelsea Janes pointed out, Zimmerman, who is in his contract year and might well have been facing his final at-bat with Washington had the team lost, has been playing for the team since Soto was 6 years old.
But for all the champagne and joy and seeming curse-exorcism, a cold reality lies just down the road: For the fifth time in eight years, the Nationals will now head to the NLDS, where, as they did in 2017, the Dodgers await. Is the breaking of the Nats curse enough to help them finally advance? At the very least, true to their word, they’ve stayed in the fight.