A Nationals regular season that began with endless promise, bottomed out in late May but then kicked into high gear for a long time came to an end this afternoon with an 8-2 victory over the Indians and a most impressive 93-69 record few could’ve predicted four months ago.
Next up: One game Tuesday night against the Brewers to decide whether they’ll get a chance to make amends for past October failures.
The Nationals will host Milwaukee in the National League wild card game, an 8 p.m. winner-take-all showdown on South Capitol Street that became official today when the Cardinals blew out the Cubs 9-0 to capture the NL Central title and foil the Brewers’ last-ditch hope of catching them.
“Amazing,” left fielder Juan Soto said. “I can tell you we’re ready for the playoffs.”
Nothing the Nats did on the field today had any impact on securing that matchup. For the first time in 2019, their game was inconsequential.
But only as it pertained to the standings. There were plenty of consequential developments during the course of this game played in front of a celebratory crowd of 36,764.
Most significantly, this victory wrapped up a perfect 8-0 homestand to end the regular season and put a definitive stamp on the Nationals’ remarkable in-season turnaround. Owners of a 19-31 record on May 24, they proceeded to go 74-38 the rest of the way, a .661 winning percentage that matched the Dodgers’ for the NL’s best over that prolonged stretch.
In pulling that off, the Nationals became the first major league club in 105 years to go from 12 games under .500 to 24 games over .500, a feat previously accomplished only by the 1914 Boston Braves.
“Every year in spring training, 30 teams set out to get to the postseason,” manager Davey Martinez said. “And that’s the goal when you leave spring training. No matter how you start, the objective is to get to the postseason. The boys did that. We can all sit here and say, ‘Hey, it was ugly in the beginning.’ But they stepped up and endured a lot, and we’re going to the postseason.”
Today’s finale saw Martinez rest some regulars including Anthony Rendon (who closed out an MVP-caliber season with a .319 batting average, 34 homers, 126 RBIs and a 1.010 OPS) while letting others get a couple at-bats and then take a seat, such as Soto (who finished with a .282 batting average, 34 homers, 110 RBIs, a .400 on-base percentage and .949 OPS).
It saw Kurt Suzuki blast a two-run homer and further strengthen his case to start behind the plate Tuesday night, his offensive skills and rapport with Max Scherzer perhaps outweighing any concerns about his ability to throw out runners due to a sore elbow.
“Suzuki was the big question mark, whether he could catch,” Martinez said. “The last two days, he proved he was good to go, and he’s swinging the bat well. Everybody’s healthy, and we’re ready to go. Come Tuesday, all hands on deck.”
It saw Gerardo Parra continue a sudden and torrid hot streak at the plate with two more hits and three more RBIs. The veteran outfielder, who was 3-for-51 with zero RBIs from Aug. 13-Sept. 27, is now 8 for his last 10 with two doubles, a homer and 11 RBIs.
It saw Joe Ross complete his midseason resurgence from disastrous reliever to reliable starter with six innings of one-run ball. Ross, who had a 9.45 ERA on Aug. 1, went 4-1 with a 2.75 ERA in his final eight starts, bolstering his case for a spot at the back end of the 2020 rotation.
“Nice high note to finish on for the final game of the regular season,” Ross said. “Obviously, we’ll see what we’ve got from here forward, but I feel good physically, so I’m excited.”
It saw Ryan Zimmerman strike out looking during a pinch-hit appearance in the bottom of the seventh, the crowd roaring throughout for the only man to play in each of the Nationals’ 15 seasons in town, his future uncertain beyond this year.
And it saw Aaron Barrett make his long-awaited first relief appearance at Nationals Park since Aug. 5, 2015. The right-hander, whose career was derailed by two major elbow injuries, labored during a 29-pitch top of the seventh but left in tears as the crowd showed its support, the emotional moment of a day of celebration before Tuesday’s day of reckoning.
“For sure haven’t had that type of adrenaline rush in a long time,” Barrett said. “I definitely felt it. Looking forward to seeing that type of crowd and that environment on Tuesday. I imagine they are going to bring it.”