Because they stuck together in May, Nats will play in October

The ultimate optimist to the end, Davey Martinez insisted Tuesday night that he never doubted his 2019 Nationals would make it to the postseason, even after their infamous 19-31 start that had some questioning whether the second-year manager should lose his job.

"You know what? I imagined it in spring training. I really did," Martinez said. "And I said it, May 24, I said this team is going to bounce back and turn it around. I thought we hit the bottom then. But this team, we get everybody back, we get healthy, we're going to be OK. So let's just keep fighting, and here we are."

Yes, indeed. Here they are. The Nationals are going to the postseason for the fifth time in eight years. Or, at least, they're going to the National League wild card game for the first time in club history. They'll have to win that game (almost certainly against the Brewers) to enjoy a postseason run longer than one day.

But they've got six more days to worry about that. Right now, the Nats are celebrating what they've already achieved, because it is significant.

They're only the ninth team in major league history to go from 12 games under .500 to the postseason. And they may exceed the turnaround of most of the previous eight, five of which didn't get to the 90-win mark. The Nats need only go 2-3 the rest of the week to get there.

Only two previous clubs (the 1974 Pirates and the 2005 Astros) had worse records after 50 games than these Nationals did and made it to the postseason. Neither reached the 90-win mark, though the Astros did reach the World Series.

How, then, did this particular group pull this off? How did a team that couldn't hit, couldn't field and couldn't pitch once the bullpen gate swung open turn its entire season around and play .645 ball (a 104-win pace) over the course of four months to clinch a spot in October?

"It was a situation where I think a lot of teams could've folded," general manager Mike Rizzo said. "A lot of teams, the clubhouse would have been fractured. But Davey held this thing together, and I give him a lot of credit for that."

That's the message that was repeated throughout the champagne-and-beer-soaked clubhouse Tuesday night, and it's the message that was repeated throughout the last four months. The Nationals' season didn't crater because everyone stuck together, with their 53-year-old manager setting the tone from the top, along with a host of experienced players.

"I think because we were a little bit more veteran group, we realized what we had an opportunity to do," reliever Sean Doolittle said. "That guys were willing to put the team before themselves. And I think that's a big reason why we're here celebrating right now."

It also helped that the Nationals roster, when healthy, is loaded with talent. They've got perhaps the best starting foursome in the National League in Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Patrick Corbin and Aníbal Sánchez, who are a combined 52-28 with a 3.30 ERA and 841 strikeouts over 732 innings pitched.

Turner-Celebrates-Grand-Slam-Blue-Sidebar.jpgThey've got perhaps the best 3-4 hitting combo in the majors in Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto, who have combined to bat .304 with 68 homers, 73 doubles, 232 RBIs and a .985 OPS. They've got a dangerous 1-2 punch at the top of the order in Trea Turner and Adam Eaton. They've got two clutch veteran hitters in Howie Kendrick and Asdrúbal Cabrera. They've got a catching duo in Kurt Suzuki and Yan Gomes that has combined for 28 homers and 103 RBIs. They've got a Gold Glove-caliber rookie center fielder in Victor Robles.

Why didn't this season get away from them?

"Because we're good," Scherzer said, with emphasis. "We're good. We're a good freakin' team. And we can play with anybody in this league. It just takes all 25 of us to go out there and execute."

Talent isn't always enough to get the job done, though. We've seen that in three of the previous eight years, when Nationals rosters that looked stacked on paper watched the playoffs on TV.

There is some other intangible trait is necessary to turn that talent into enough wins to reach October. This team has that. And it believed it all along, even when the odds suggested it probably wasn't going to happen.

"Without a doubt," Turner said. "I think everybody in this clubhouse envisioned this exact thing right here. We talked about it when we were 19-31. We talked about how we were going to laugh at everybody else outside of this clubhouse for everything that they said about us, and we are here now."

The Nationals have perhaps had more talented teams during this eight-year run of success that has included more wins than anybody in baseball besides the Dodgers and Yankees. But they haven't had a closer team.

That's why this team is going to play at least 163 games when others did not.

"This team was a playoff caliber roster," Rizzo said. "We had a manager that cared for the players, and the players bought in to what he was doing and preaching. There's a bunch of professional players in here that never pointed fingers, never gave anonymous quotes and tried to blow up the clubhouse. It's something that I won't forget as a GM, because it's a special group of guys."

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