It’s the end of the Washington Nationals’ pseudo-dynastic hold on the NL East as we know it and I feel…partially guilty on behalf of the St. Louis Cardinals.
The beginning of this run, whether we truly grasped it at the time, was in 2009, when the Nationals drafted San Diego State starting pitcher Stephen Strasburg with the #1 overall pick. The Nationals earned the #1 pick as all baseball teams do, by being terrible at baseball, and the former Montreal Expos never really gained much footing in the District of Columbia. Strasburg was a much-hyped prospect, and thanks to the Nationals remaining terrible in 2009, they got one of the few amateur prospects who has received more hype than Strasburg in the 2010 draft–Bryce Harper.
The Nationals continued to build. They developed good, young players, and acquired the likes of Jayson Werth, Gio Gonzalez, and later Max Scherzer to bolster their team. And the Nationals have been one of baseball’s best teams this decade. And yet, despite such production, they have never won a playoff series.
The 2019 Nationals should still be a decent team–they will still have Max Scherzer and Anthony Rendon and Trea Turner and plenty of other good pieces. But the Atlanta Braves aren’t going anywhere, nor are the Philadelphia Phillies. There is a very real possibility that Bryce Harper is playing somewhere else. The Nationals have already abandoned all hope for 2018, trading Matt Adams, Daniel Murphy, and the aforementioned Gio Gonzalez. The Nationals appear to be on the downside of their run.
And perhaps the best chance the Nationals had at a deep run came in the first season of this run, in 2012. Following a nondescript, 80-81 season in 2011, a season in which Bryce Harper was still in the minors and Stephen Strasburg was recovering from Tommy John surgery, the pieces came together the next year, winning 98 games and clinching home-field advantage throughout the postseason. They would face the victor of the first-ever NL Wild Card Game. They would face the St. Louis Cardinals.
The Nationals jumped out to a big lead in the NLDS’s rubber match Game 5, with the Cardinals’ chances of winning the game standing at just 4% after a two-run home run in the bottom of the third off the bat of Michael Morse to bring the score to 6-0. The Cardinals chipped away at the lead, but their odds of victory fell once again to 4% in the top of the ninth when Allen Craig struck out to record the inning’s second out. The tying run was at home plate, yes, but the Cardinals were running out of time.
But then, back-to-back batters, Yadier Molina and David Freese, drew full-count walks to load the bases. Carlos Beltran stood on third base, while pinch-runner Adron Chambers stood at second as the potential tying run, with the incumbent World Series hero Freese as the potential go-ahead run at first. But the next batter, decidedly non-power hitter Daniel Descalso, was probably just hoping to survive. And yet he swung on the very first pitch he saw against Drew Storen, who appeared increasingly on the ropes. And he tied it. And the next batter, Pete Kozma, got a bloop single of his own to drive in two. The next batter, closer Jason Motte, struck out, but he held the Nationals without a base runner in the bottom half of the inning, and the Cardinals advanced to the NLCS.
You could make an argument that the ninth inning of the fifth game of the 2012 NLDS was the greatest inning of the Cardinals’ most recent postseason run (I’d still go with the 10th inning in Game 6 of the 2011 World Series, but I can see the argument for the 2012 tension). But for the Nationals, it was a nightmare. And in retrospect, it is even moreso. This was the 2012 postseason in which the Nationals shut down a healthy Stephen Strasburg so as to conserve him for future postseason runs which never came to fruitition. It is impossible for Washington fans to not think about what could have been.
But I’m a Cardinals fan and I want to enjoy fun things, so I will watch this inning constantly this afternoon when Max Scherzer inevitably carves us up like a Thanksgiving turkey. Here are the set’s projected pitching matchups. All game times are Central.
Monday (12:05)–Jack Flaherty (8-6, 2.87) vs. Max Scherzer (16-6, 2.22 ERA)
Tuesday (6:05)–Miles Mikolas (13-4, 2.96 ERA) vs. Erick Fedde (1-3, 5.79 ERA)
Wednesday (6:05)–John Gant (6-5, 3.34 ERA) vs. Tanner Roark (8-14, 4.03 ERA)