And the beat goes on

Four Washington Post scribes reflect on their time covering the Nationals

The Washington Nationals arrived from Montreal for the 2005 baseball season. Four Nationals beat writers for The Washington Post during these past 15 seasons reflect on the team’s first National League pennant from the perspective of their years covering the club.

Ryan Zimmerman, the longest-tenured National (15 seasons) and the franchise's first draft pick (No. 4 overall in 2005), bats during a game at RFK Stadium. (Preston Keres/The Washington Post)

Barry Svrluga

Barry Svrluga covered the Nationals from 2005 to 2008 (team record: 245-288). He is now a sports columnist for The Post.

Remember that when the Nationals arrived here, they were still the Expos. They were owned by Major League Baseball. Most of their front office worked out of trailers in the parking lots of RFK Stadium. As The Post’s first beat writer for the new team, I remember meeting team president Tony Tavares in his suite at the Washington Hilton on Connecticut Avenue. When his phone rang to the tune of “O Canada,” I knew what I was about to cover was more a cultural transition than a baseball season.

It would be easy to say that what the 2019 team accomplished by winning the franchise’s first pennant seemed impossible back then. The reality, though, is the first Nats team of 2005 was 50-31 at the halfway point of the season, leading the National League East by 5½ games. On the field that June, when the Nationals ripped off 10 straight wins and the stands down the third base line at RFK Stadium bounced every night, anything felt possible.

My years as The Post’s beat writer went from that fall of 2004, before the Nats had played a game here, through the middle of 2008, when the bottom hadn’t yet been reached. And that 50-31 mark on July 3, 2005, that was the high-water mark for hope. Know how many of those first-half wins were by one run? That would be 21. Makes for exciting baseball. It’s not a sustainable way to win. They went 31-50 the rest of the way.

So what I remember was the Nats preparing to tank before tanking became a (mostly) accepted route to a championship. They held what amounted to an open call for an entire rotation in 2007 (Mike Bacsik! Jason Simontacchi! Jerome Williams!). They all but blew off the free agent market. Ryan Zimmerman, the forever Nat, opened the new ballpark with a walk-off home run. The team still stunk. Stan Kasten, the team president, barked into a bullhorn to try to get people to buy into the idea that scouting and player development were important investments before anyone could see the players who had been scouted and developed. And eventually it worked.

Those teams showed me the freedom that comes from playing without expectations. The 2019 version has shown us all how to conjure that freedom, that fun, while simultaneously maintaining the loftiest aspirations. We know now how hard that combination is to find.

Inaugural ball: Ryan Zimmerman, center, is mobbed by teammates after belting a walk-off home run in the ninth inning to lead Washington to a 3-2 victory over the Braves in the first game at Nationals Park on March 30, 2008. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

Chico Harlan

Chico Harlan covered the Nationals from 2008 to 2009 (team record: 98-178). He’s now The Post’s Rome bureau chief.

I covered the Washington Nationals during what you could safely call their low point for lovability. The clubhouse was a collection of malcontents on the brink of forced retirement or the Nippon Professional Baseball league. The Opening Day pitcher in 2008, Odalis Pérez, preferred to terminate his career rather than show up for 2009. My main job requirement, faced with all this, was coming up with a different way every night to write about defeat.

Truth be told, I needed my own brief Nats detox after that. But that is not, of course, where the story ended. Because here I am a decade later, and it is the very same Nationals who turned me back into a fan and then a mega-fan and who this year have sent my baseball love into the stratosphere. My October routine this year while living in Italy: setting the alarm for 4 a.m., watching the heart-fluttering final innings and sending gushy text messages to D.C. friends about how amazing it all is.

The 2019 team, because it went further than the others, always will be remembered. But I don’t view this year as a stand-alone. The year’s success feels richer, more earned, because of all the earlier flops and failures. Nobody would care as much about 2019 if it weren’t for 2012 and 2014 and 2016 and 2017 and, yes, even 2008 and 2009.

Viewed one way, the teams of my era are irrelevant to this World Series run. To the benefit of everybody but opposing batters, there is no Garrett Mock, no Daniel Cabrera, no Mike Hinckley.

But viewed another way, all this — five playoff years and counting — couldn’t have happened without the misery.

Because of that misery, Jim Bowden combusted and opened the door for Mike Rizzo to replace him. Because of that misery, the unflappable Ryan Zimmerman proved he could handle almost anything. And because of that misery, the Nationals were able to draft Stephen Strasburg, a then-college pitcher who was so obviously central to the franchise’s fate that I made two visits to San Diego State to see him before he was drafted. In my first visit, Strasburg talked enthusiastically about his pitching philosophy before heading to his public policy class. In the second visit, I sat in the stands for Strasburg’s final college start, when all he did was strike out 17 and throw a no-hitter. At the time, it seemed safe to say he was already more talented than any of the 2009 Nationals. But in retrospect, that was an understatement. Strasburg was a future postseason ace, even better than billed.

Sometimes it just takes 10 years to fully know what you’re looking at.

Stephen Strasburg delivers the first pitch of his Nationals' tenure June 8, 2010, against the Pirates at Nationals Park. Strasburg, the No. 1 pick in the 2009 draft, struck out 14 over seven innings in Washington's 5-2 win. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

Adam Kilgore

Adam Kilgore covered the Nationals from 2010 to 2014 (team record: 429-380). He’s now a national NFL reporter for The Post.

The 2019 Washington Nationals, a deathless band of wizened grinders and incandescent youth, play beautiful baseball with intoxicating weightlessness. It is a quality no one in Washington will take for granted because they have seen it before and know its fragility. It took an awful few minutes to lose and seven years to recapture.

I covered the Nationals from 2010 through 2014, during which time they transformed from dismal to cursed. I didn’t think Washington would ever experience a baseball season quite like 2012 again, even if the franchise someday won the World Series. It felt so fresh and new, a loopy joyride even amid the rancor of the Strasburg Shutdown. That enchanted summer — the Clip-and-Save bullpen, the Goon Squad bench, John Lannan’s cameo — reminded Washington how good baseball could be. Bryce Harper was a teenager. Gio Gonzalez was a machine. Davey Johnson was a wizard.

All season they were running on a tightrope and didn’t know what lurked beneath, didn’t even know they were off the ground. They went up 6-0 in Game 5 of the National League Division Series, and the Cardinals cobbled hellacious at-bats, and the score grew close, and there were two outs in the ninth inning, and 13 pitches got thrown that could have clinched the series. And then the Nationals fell off the tightrope. Once they climbed back up, the only thing they could think was they might fall again.

In 2012, assuming the Nationals someday would reach the World Series — with Harper, Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, Ian Desmond, Wilson Ramos, all the rest — was convention. Players faded away, off to other cities. The fourth pennant above Nationals Park remained blank. When something seems inevitable without happening for long enough, it can start to seem impossible.

The 2019 Nationals carried that same burden. It seemed an entire era, the one launched back in 2012, would crumble at 19-31. These Nationals found the secret to untangling history or overcoming a hellish start is the same: Take it a step at a time and find joy in each one.

The Nationals have been talented before. They have never formed bonds that spark a crowd of lawyers and lobbyists to chomp with their arms or make Ryan Zimmerman dance in the dugout or cause Strasburg to submit to group hugs. They discovered a magic stew of experience and youth. It’s Zimmerman’s rugged professionalism and Juan Soto’s boyish swagger, Anthony Rendon’s peaceful Zen and Gerardo Parra’s contagious glee.

Do not be deceived: The weight is still there. These Nationals know they are running on the tightrope; they just don’t care. It has made them bulletproof. The 2012 season felt simpler than those that came after it. Somewhere along the way, the Nationals lost a quality they have regained, a care for other over self, a power that outside the masculine precincts of a clubhouse might be referred to as love.

Bryce Harper walks off the field after the final game of his seven-year tenure in Washington on Sept. 30, 2018, at Colorado. Harper signed a 13-year, $330 million deal with the Philadelphia Phillies in February. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

Chelsea Janes

Chelsea Janes covered the Nationals from 2015 to 2018 (team record: 357-291). She is now covering the 2020 presidential election for The Post.

I will always remember the look in Max Scherzer’s eyes after the Nationals lost Game 5 to the Cubs in the 2017 National League Division Series. His eyes were wide and unblinking, as if they were already strained from the number of times he had — and would — watch mental replays of his disastrous outing in the months to come.

“It sucks,” he said, by way of an opening line to reporters that night. “… This game can be cruel sometimes.”

Images such as that, of Scherzer lost for words, of Jayson Werth finishing up his interviews and sitting alone at his locker with a gluten-free beer because there was nothing left to say, of Dusty Baker having to explain the inexplicable for the umpteenth time, defined the four years I covered the Nationals.

At times, nothing seemed to go right, so managers lost their jobs (and closers lost their minds). At other times, just enough went right, so hearts broke when it ultimately went wrong. And over and over and over, the whole thing defied explanation. Why couldn’t the 2015 Nationals handle expectations? Why couldn’t the 2018 Nationals put it together? Why, for the love of whomever you love, couldn’t anyone on the 2016 or 2017 rosters find a way to get three outs in the seventh or eighth?

Those years were marked by so many anxious questions beyond those. Should Baker have gotten an extension? Should Baker have been fired? Should the Nationals have offered Bryce Harper more? Would he have been worth signing for less? Why doesn’t Mike Rizzo have an extension? Should Rizzo have an extension? Is Juan Soto really this good? And, when it seemed clear Harper wouldn’t return, is Soto good enough?

Some of those answers came in time. Some of those questions will be debated by those inside the organization and out for years to come. But the answers don’t seem to matter much anymore. Because in watching the Nationals this season, I learned that it is just as hard to explain why something didn’t happen as it is to pinpoint why it finally, finally did. As hard as it was to see through even the widest eyes then — and as easy as it is to see now — this game can be kind sometimes, too. For this team, at this moment, that’s the only answer that matters.

Top photos and portraits by Washington Post Staff photographers. Design by Brianna Schroer.

Read more Nationals coverage:

For owner Ted Lerner, Nationals’ World Series berth is a family celebration

Pitch by pitch, Daniel Hudson comes to terms with being the Nationals’ closer

Analysis: Is too much rest before the World Series a bad thing? The Nationals are about to find out.

Who should throw the ceremonial first pitches at Nats’ World Series games?

The Nationals’ World Series roster strategy figures to be big on stars, not on subs

Barry Svrluga: Fourteen years after baseball’s return to D.C., the original Nats love what they’re seeing

Why Nationals Manager Dave Martinez never panicked

D.C. Sports Bog: ‘Since today’ fan becomes face of the Nats’ World Series bandwagon

Credits: Washington Post Staff

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