They spent the better part of five months playing with their backs against the wall. There was the infamous 19-31 start. Then a slow climb back into the race. Then a missed opportunity to catch the Braves in the National League East. Then a down-to-the-wire surge to ensure home-field advantage for the wild card game.
Then that winner-take-all game against the Brewers, in which they trailed with four outs to go. Then a 1-0 and 2-1 deficit in the best-of-five National League Division Series against the 106-win Dodgers. Then back-to-back wins while facing elimination, the latter coming again after they trailed with six outs to go.
The Nationals have faced an uphill climb for a long time now, and they’ve managed to overcome all of it in impressive fashion. But now? Now consider the scenario they’ve put themselves in.
They’re up 2-0 on the Cardinals in the NL Championship Series. They won both games on the road, allowing a grand total of one run (which scored on a defensive misplay) and four hits (all of which came from the seventh inning on).
They’re back home now, and if they can win twice in the next three days, they’ll not only clinch the pennant but they’ll do it in front of their own fans on South Capitol Street.
What exactly is going on here?
“Oh, my gosh,” reliever Sean Doolittle said. “I don’t even think ... it almost, it almost ... I don’t want to say it was like unrealistic, but that would have felt like maybe too much to ask, even for, like, a best-case scenario. You have your two starters take no-hitters (into) the seventh inning, and we get some timely hitting and come out of there with both games. I mean, that is absolutely ... we literally couldn’t have scripted it any better.”
No, this one really does feel too good to be true. It’s real, though. But it does leave this team in a most surprising and unfamiliar position: For the first time all season, the Nationals are out in front. They’re now favored.
FiveThirtyEight.com gives them an 86 percent chance of winning the NLCS, then a 34 percent chance of winning the World Series (which after the Astros’ walk-off win Sunday night now stands as the best odds of any of the four remaining teams).
Fangraphs gives the Nationals an 89 percent chance of winning the NLCS, though their 31 percent chance of winning the World Series is behind the Astros’ 44 percent.
History is certainly on their side. In major league history, teams that hold a 2-0 lead in a best-of-seven series are 70-13 (an .843 success rate), according to WhoWins.com. Teams that win Games 1 and 2 on the road are 22-3 (.880). Teams that win Games 1 and 2 on the road in the LCS are 12-0 (1.000).
If you’re worried about the Nationals getting caught up in all that, just remember who’s managing this team and what message he has preached all year long.
“It’s kind of nice going back up 2-0 in the series, but those guys are really good over there,” Davey Martinez said. “The series is far from over. ... We still got a long way to go. My message after the game was still: ‘Hey, 1-0 every day.’”
The Nationals have excelled at focusing on the little picture and avoiding the big picture throughout this long-term run. It’s what made their climb back from the depths of late-May possible in the first place.
But they’ve gotten so used to playing with a sense of urgency, with very little margin for error, it’s probably fair to wonder how they’ll handle this sudden reversal of roles.
“We still have to stay aggressive,” reliever Daniel Hudson said. “I think the reason we played so well is probably because we have a little bit of urgency. So to be able to get ahead like this, I think we still have to keep our foot on the gas pedal and not think that if we lose one this week, that it’s going to be good, or not bad for us. We still have to go out there and be aggressive with these guys, and try to keep our foot on the gas pedal and put them away.”
It certainly helps to be sending yet another ace to the mound for Game 3 tonight. If the Cardinals struggled against Aníbal Sánchez and Max Scherzer, imagine what they’re thinking about facing Stephen Strasburg, owner of a 1.32 ERA, 45 strikeouts and five walks in 34 career postseason innings.
“I mean, it’s another game, and I think we have done a pretty good job thus far of taking it one day at a time,” said Strasburg, whose three appearances so far this month have either come in elimination games or with his team trailing a series. “I think it was kind of out of necessity back in May. So we’re just going to stick to what we have been doing and keep leaving it all out there on the field.”
The Nationals are understandably thrilled to get to play at home after a long week that saw them go 3-0 in Los Angeles and St. Louis. And after clinching their NLDS victory on the road, they do realize they have an opportunity to clinch the first pennant in franchise history in front of their own fans.
It’s an appealing scenario.
“Our park has been absolutely legit when it comes to the fan base and them coming out and supporting us,” right fielder Adam Eaton said. “And helping start the wave type deal, with the emotion and just getting it on our side right away. So I think we’re really excited to go home, play in a familiar park where people are cheering for you instead of against you. I’m excited.”
All they have to do now is go 1-0. And then go 1-0 again. Who could have imagined it?