Last week, the Washington Nationals became World Series champions, knocking off the Houston Astros in seven games, all of which were won by the road team. It was an unlikely, joyous turn for a franchise known for heartbreak and underachievement in the postseason, and a release for the fans who have followed it. Here, a Ringer staffer reflects on his memories of the team and the whiplash caused by its 14-year road to a title.
I didn’t much care when the Nationals first arrived in Washington, D.C. At the time I was 11 years old, and couldn’t comprehend even the most fundamental aspects of how baseball worked. Why was I, a right-hander, supposed to wear my glove on my left hand? What did it mean to tag up? I didn’t know then that learning answers to these questions meant signing a lifetime contract to be a Nationals fan. And I certainly didn’t anticipate the way that fandom would impact the years that followed, and the relationships that have defined them.
For those who don’t remember, the early Nats sucked. Or rather, the inaugural Nats were unremarkable, but the early Nats after them sucked. A roster led by Cristian Guzmán, Liván Hernández, and 20-year-old rookie Ryan Zimmerman raced to a 50-31 start across the first half of the 2005 campaign, but went 31-50 from there to finish dead last in the NL East. Then came the lean times: Alfonso Soriano’s one-year stint with the Nats in 2006; a starting outfield of Ryan Church, Austin Kearns, and Nook Logan in 2007; the ill-fated Lastings Milledge experiment of 2008; the myriad managerial mistakes made by Manny Acta (and then Jim Riggleman) in 2009. Between 2005 and ’09, Washington went a combined 343-466. At one point, the team forgot how to spell its own name.
This wasn’t all that important to me, though, because the Nationals came to make me happy. I warmed to the idea of a baseball team being nearby, and every once in a while I got to go see them. Whatever Washington Senators fans remained in D.C. could enjoy a day at the ballpark again. Children of the ’80s born into Orioles fandom were able to convert. A winning ballclub would have been great, but after the city had spent 34 years without a team, any baseball at all was welcome. The Nationals ranked 11th in attendance in 2005. During that first season, they packed their makeshift house full.
The initial Nats games were played in Robert F. Kennedy Stadium, a strange and isolated relic. The city’s football team grew famous there, and then moved east, out of the district, to FedExField in Landover, Maryland, where it would piss away the nearly indescribable amount of goodwill it had built up during its heyday. RFK today is a shell—old, rusting, and more or less abandoned. In September 2019, the city announced that it would be demolished. There was nothing happening there that made the maintenance fees worthwhile.
For the first three years of the Nationals’ tenure in Washington, though, the team played in RFK, its organs modified for baseball. And despite it all—the bad record, the bad stadium, my personal lack of context—I was in awe of the simple things that winning and aging can minimize. A ball could plop into your lap and you could keep it forever. How wonderful!
I knew that Stephen Strasburg’s first MLB start on June 8, 2010, was a special occasion. After all, I was sitting in my basement on a Tuesday—a school night!—eating Domino’s pizza with my friends. All day, ESPN had kept a countdown clock on screen leading up to the first pitch. That game still has a name: Strasmas.
Strasburg’s debut start was important because in 2010 “Stephen Strasburg” was less a 21-year-old with a blessed right arm than the wishes and wants of a fan base made manifest in human form. He wasn’t just the no. 1 selection in the 2009 draft, but also the highest-paid draft pick in baseball history, and supposedly the most complete prospect ever to enter the major leagues. (At least until 2011, but we’ll get to that.) His mythic fastball was supposed to tear through dimensions. Remember the buzz that surrounded Daisuke Matsuzaka’s gyroball? Strasburg had whatever level of hype is above that.
D.C. during the early years of the Obama presidency was an odd place. Optimism was in the air, and the internet was just beginning to show how quickly it could amplify emotions. The year before Strasburg made his debut, I saw fans wearing his Triple-A Syracuse Chiefs jersey. Suddenly, his face and name were plastered everywhere. “The attention rivals anything I’ve ever seen in sports,” then–team president Stan Kasten said. “For us, this is as big as it gets. We’ve got a World Series–sized media contingent here for a Tuesday game against the Pirates.”
The hype was justified. Strasburg throttled the Pirates with singeing fastballs and breaking balls that arched into the sky before diving violently through the strike zone. He struck out one batter in the first, then the side in the second. In the sixth, the radar gun clocked one of his pitches at 101 miles per hour. The broadcast mistook his changeup for a fastball. He left the game after seven innings, having struck out a franchise-record 14.
Tickets to Strasburg’s debut were nearly impossible to come by. This was the team’s third season at Nationals Park, a new stadium built next to the Anacostia River in the city’s Navy Yard, but sellouts were sparse. Only half of the venue’s 40,000-plus seats were filled in the weeks before Strasmas. The average resale ticket on that day went for more than $100. A friend of mine managed to get one. Outside, he bought a bootleg shirt that looked like it came from a tacky magic show. Maybe that’s what Strasmas was.
It’s funny, that shirt. Its Powerpoint-graphic-esque words were the slightest bit off. Under Strasburg’s visage, it proclaimed that the future was now. The shirt turned out to be right. It was just nine years ahead of reality.
I experienced sports euphoria in October 2012. I learned what true sports heartbreak felt like a day later.
The 2012 Nationals had the wind at their backs. They won 98 games, the most in the majors. Outfielder Jayson Werth, signed before the 2011 season to a massive seven-year deal, had struggled with performance and injury, but that hardly mattered. Bryce Harper—the next Chosen One, he of that Sports Illustrated cover and the 600-foot home runs and the undeniable swagger—had been called up, and, boy, was he magnificent. He swatted 22 homers and stole 18 bases while putting up a .270/.340/.477 slash line en route to being named NL Rookie of the Year. By WAR, his 2012 season is still the second best of his career.
Washington had also assembled a strong rotation: Gio González, a lefty acquired via a trade with Oakland, led the National League in wins; Jordan Zimmermann, a product of the franchise’s burgeoning farm system, led Washington in WAR; Strasburg, who’d pitched sparingly during the 2010 and 2011 seasons after tearing his UCL and having Tommy John surgery, was healthy and yanking around batters with ease. Before the season, the team announced that Strasburg would be limited to 160 innings to preserve his long-term health. He was shut down on September 7 after 159.1. That D.C. only seemed split about this decision, with the Nats in pole position for a World Series berth, should make clear just how inevitable this group seemed. It was not uncommon to hear friends, neighbors, and teachers say, with straight faces, It’s fine. We’ll be here again.
The Stras-less Nationals fell behind the St. Louis Cardinals 2-1 in that year’s NLDS. I had started my freshman year of college in the city about a month earlier, and my buddies from high school drove back from their respective colleges in Virginia to join me in attending Game 4. We hadn’t grown up watching good teams, and now it was time to see a winning team, our winning team. The Nats were able to stretch time backward, at least for me, at least for a little while.
That game was a pitcher’s duel, which is elimination-game playoff baseball at its most agonizing. The Nats scored a run on an Adam LaRoche home run in the second inning, and the Cardinals equalized with a Carlos Beltrán sac fly in the third. And then the scoreboard got a break. In the bottom of the ninth, Werth led off against Lance Lynn and took the first two pitches, both strikes. Then he dug in, fouling off seven balls during a 13-pitch at-bat. Finally, Werth caught a Lynn fastball and drove it into the bullpen. I’d never felt so lucky. I went home and immediately shelled out way more money than I could afford for a standing-room-only ticket to Game 5.
The Nationals scored the first six runs of that game. Harper ripped a triple in the second and homered in the third. Ryan Zimmerman went deep, and so did utility man Michael Morse. The dam was breaking. Somebody had to win the World Series every season, right?
Then González, the Nats starter, began to unravel. His control was gone by the fifth inning, and the Cardinals crept back into the game. By the top of the ninth, the Nats led by two, but the stadium had quieted, because D.C. fans know when something terrible is about to happen. Drew Storen, the closer, allowed a leadoff double to open that inning. He then recorded two outs before triggering the sequence that haunted this franchise until last week: walk to Yadier Molina, walk to David Freese, single to Daniel Descalso, single to Pete Kozma.
“The park came unglued after the second out, roaring for the pitch that would clinch the Nationals’ trip to the National League championship series,” Adam Kilgore wrote the next day in The Washington Post. “It never came. They are all still waiting, waiting for the long winter ahead, and for the hope the Florida sun will help erase Washington’s newest, worst baseball memory.”
On the way out of the park, it was quiet enough to hear the river go by.
I watched Game 5 of the 2016 NLDS from a couch in Los Angeles. I had recently graduated from college, and was living in enemy territory. Throughout the game, I didn’t feel nervous, sad, or hopeful as much as disgruntled, like an old man upset that the children outside were making too much noise. Couldn’t they just … not?
I wasn’t the only one who was tired. After the 2012 collapse, the Nationals developed a reputation as legendary bed-shitters. In 2013, SI placed both Harper and Strasburg on the cover before the season; the magazine also picked the Nationals to win the World Series, and then-manager Davey Johnson told reporters that his team’s slogan was “World Series or bust.” That team went 86-76, finishing 10 games behind the Atlanta Braves. Bust.
In 2014, SI picked the Nats to win it all again, and they won the most games in the NL before succumbing to the Giants in the division series—a series that included a six-hour, 18-inning gut punch at Nats Park. In 2015, the newly acquired Max Scherzer and a scarily jacked Harper were featured on the magazine’s preview issue alongside the teaser “SUPERTEAMS ARE DEAD? THE NATIONALS BEG TO DIFFER.” Then they missed the playoffs once more, despite an MVP turn from Harper. By the time that 2016 rolled around, any non-Nationals fan who told me my team should be really good this year probably thought I cussed an awful lot.
That season, they won 95 games, tied for the second most in baseball. They proceeded to stick to the script, landing in another tight NLDS Game 5 at home. As such, my hopes sunk from Let’s win the World Series! to Can the end just be quick and painless? Alas. Game 5 was, at the time, the longest nine-inning game in the history of MLB’s postseason. (The Nats went on to break that record, in another Game 5 NLDS loss, in 2017.) Between the Nats and the Dodgers, 13 different pitchers took the mound. In the seventh inning, the Nationals blew a 1-0 lead and made five pitching changes. That inning lasted more than an hour.
The Dodgers burned their closer, Kenley Jansen, beginning in that seventh inning, and so when he allowed two men to reach base in the ninth, L.A. pulled him. Enter Clayton Kershaw, on short rest, out of the bullpen. The announcers exclaimed, as if Christ had risen in prime time, on camera, wearing Dodger blue. I knew we were fucked.
“You do have to go through some pain … I’ve gone through that pain a few times now. But you have to persevere,” then–Nats manager Dusty Baker said. “If you just keep persevering, something will happen. Something good will happen.” I’m not sure that anybody believed him.
I watched Game 7 of the World Series in a bar in downtown Brooklyn with friends. One said he showed up only because he wanted to see me cry.
The joke was on him, because I expected nothing. Sure, this year had been different; as my colleague Ben Lindbergh noted last week, these Nats beat the toughest-ever slate of playoff opponents and came from behind to win five elimination games. And while Harper had left the team in free agency, a new wunderkind outfielder had taken his place. Juan Soto, the magnetic, bat-carrying, psych-out-shuffling 21-year-old, emerged as the youngest player to ever hit three home runs in the Fall Classic. Strasburg, who had struggled with injuries in the years since Strasmas and registered a 1-2 career record in the playoffs entering 2019, became the first starter ever to go 5-0 in the postseason. The future was now.
The phrase “team of destiny” was tossed around, first after the comeback win over the Brewers in the wild-card game, and later after avenging the losses to the Dodgers (poetically, punishing Kershaw, who was pitching on short rest, in Game 5) and the Cardinals (sorry, Cousin Tommy!). The label was affixed to Washington again when it went into Houston and stole two games against the Goliathan Astros, perhaps the most talented roster ever assembled. But when you’ve decided that something isn’t real, you won’t recognize it even when it’s right in front of your face.
The Nationals fell behind in the second inning of Game 7 when Scherzer, starting just two days after he was in so much pain that he couldn’t get dressed, allowed a solo shot to Yuli Gurriel. Scherzer conceded another run on a Carlos Correa double in the fifth. By the seventh, the bar had nearly cleared out; only my table, the staff, and the owner were left.
Then two homers put the Nats ahead. The first popped off the bat of Anthony Rendon, a career National who was called up in 2013 and had suffered through all the indignities and criticisms that had come with the team’s struggles. The second, a two-run shot, strained its way through the air after Howie Kendrick flipped it to the opposite field. It seemed to grow tired as it soared. It wheezed toward the foul pole. Thunk. My phone started buzzing.
Winning brings people back to you; everybody you shared all the losses with looks back on those moments fondly. My group text message chain from home exploded, with all of my friends feeling compelled to share how much they loved each other. My sister texted to say she’d learned some of baseball’s rules. My dad, who is optimistic to the point of cliché, said he’d learned a lot about never giving up. My mom, ever the pragmatist, said she couldn’t sleep because of the fireworks.
The Nationals had given me something else that I could keep forever. How wonderful.