The celebration for all of the veterans rolled along in the Nationals clubhouse for quite some time after their 6-5 win over the Phillies on Tuesday night.
Right-hander Stephen Strasburg had a chance to step back and soak it all in. This will be his third postseason to pitch in. He was shut down famously in 2012, but pitched in the 2014 and 2017 postseasons.
“It’s so special. It’s just a testament to the guys that we have in this clubhouse,” Strasburg said. “We never stopped believing. It was a long, hard journey to get to this point, but the journey is not done. We are going to keep plugging away, keep leaving it all out there on the field.”
The Nationals were 19-31 in late May, but found a way to get on a roll that extended for a few months and get back in the race. Strasburg said that the clubhouse atmosphere was part of what lifted this team back into contention.
“That’s the mark of a good team,” Strasburg said. “It takes all 25 of us. A lot of things had to go right in this stretch here to climb back in it. We were able to do that. Oh, man, it’s been fun all the way. Just being able to go out there and grind with these guys. We are all pulling for each other and that’s what’s huge.”
The right-hander has made 32 starts this season, second only to the 34 starts he made in 2014. He has had no real setbacks this season.
“I feel great. The training staff has done a great job this year,” Strasburg said. “It’s like a puzzle. The puzzle seems to be coming together. I think the biggest thing for me this year was make every start and just take it one day at a time. Just listen to the body and so I’ve been able to do that. Now I’m going to continue to do that because that’s something that I can control.”
To win a game in the postseason, Nationals manager Davey Martinez said he is willing to pitch all four of his primary starters in the wild card game if need be to earn the win. So what if Strasburg has to pitch on three or four days’ rest or pitch in relief?
“What do I got to lose? I’m 31 years old,” Strasburg said. “I’m not going to get many more opportunities. Leave it all out there on the field. Done it all year I’m going to keep doing it.”
Left-hander Patrick Corbin said he is also well aware that five days of rest could possibly go by the wayside in the playoffs. He is ready for the challenge.
“Yeah, of course,” Corbin said. “Postseason is a different ballgame. I’m excited to have an opportunity to get on the mound whenever my name is called. I think anybody in here is going to be ready to go.”
Corbin, in his first season with the Nats, is thankful for this moment. This will be his first postseason in the major leagues.
“It’s special. It’s just a great group of guys here,” Corbin said. “It’s a big reason I wanted to come here to be with an organization that wants to win and has the talent to do so for years to come. To make it in year one of my time here it’s pretty special. We were confident with the group here that we can keep this going.”
And when the club was 19-31, Corbin said Martinez kept the team calm.
“You give a lot of credit to the guys in here but also Davey for believing in us and not really changing anything really,” Corbin said. “We knew we had guys in this clubhouse, There’s too many good players here to lose that many games and not get a winning streak going. Davey did a great job throughout the course of the year.”
Closer Sean Doolittle said this playoff berth feels different from 2017, his first season with the Nats.
“We took care of business on our end and to have it unfold how it did in Pittsburgh, this is really awesome,” Doolittle said. “We talked earlier in baseball how difficult it is to make the postseason. Everything we went through as a group, it feels so much sweeter. The last time we did this, when I was here in ‘17, we clinched the first week of September. This feels so much better after everything that we’ve been through.”
While this will be Doolittle’s fifth chance in the playoffs, pitching coach Paul Menhart is also making his postseason debut in the majors. He had been a minor league coach for the Nats for 14 seasons before replacing Derek Lilliquist in early May.
“I still feel like I’m a rookie making my major league debut,” Menhart said with a smile. “Both as a player and as a coach, it’s special. Did not have this chance as a player. I missed it by one year each time. This is a first and it’s special.”
Menhart worked with the Nationals pitchers in spring training and then joined the major league team in May. He saw them go through ups and downs and eventually bounce back, and was impressed that they never gave up.
“Without a doubt. I don’t think you could’ve put it any better,” Menhart said. It’s just an amazing story. It’s amazing the resilience these guys had and have and the work ethic. Could not be more proud of these guys.”
His prediction for the postseason?
“I think we can win the whole thing because this family atmosphere we have right here,” Menhart said. “I heard a great saying one time: It’s not always the best team that wins, it’s the team that plays the best. And right now, we are playing the best. We are a family.”
Third baseman Anthony Rendon said the key was maintaining the focus Martinez laid out for them: Each day, go 1-0.
“We played them one game at a time,” Rendon said. “A lot of times people might think it’s cliche, that’s a stock answer or whatever, but really that’s how you have to take the season. It’s 162 games. It’s not over until the end. We had to lean on each other. It was really tough, but we kept grinding, we kept on pushing. We didn’t quit on ourselves.”
Catcher Kurt Suzuki confirmed he’s eyeing this weekend for a return to a starting role to test his injured right elbow prior to the wild card game. This is his third foray into the postseason, his second time with the Nats after being part of the 2012 team.
“This never gets old, man, this postseason, this opportunity,” Suzuki said. “I said it when I first signed I wanted to go to a team that I knew had a chance to go to the postseason. You don’t get any younger. We got to the post season. We just wanted the chance and now here we are.”
Can they win it all?
“Absolutely. Nobody wants to play us,” Suzuki said. “Our pitching is good, we can hit. We just got to stick together, man. Anything can happen once you get to the playoffs.”
Now the next step for the Nats is to make sure they play Tuesday’s wild card game at home.
“We obviously want to continue to fight and make sure that we can play this game at home at Nats Park, but we’re going to enjoy this one,” Doolittle said. “We are as battled-tested as we can be going into the postseason.”