“Extremely elaborate signs,” Gomes said of Washington’s playoff preparation. “Confused us sometimes.”
It was hard to see that confusion in the Nationals’ NLCS sweep or when they beat the Houston Astros to claim the World Series title. But the tricky system was further complicated in that World Series, when potential danger could be inferred in every sound. The Nationals were warned to be extra cautious against the Astros, part of a long-held belief within the sport that Houston was using video to illegally steal signs, and Washington took that advice to heart.
In the midst of a scandal that continues to shake baseball, the Nationals’ reflections of the 2019 postseason have common threads. More than a half-dozen players said they do not recall specific instances of the Astros cheating during the World Series. They do, however, remember a paranoia pervading their own clubhouse. And many believe that feeling, brought about by the Astros’ practices and later amplified by the reports that finally revealed the details, will persist across baseball.
“The way that it really erodes integrity of the game is tough,” Nationals closer Sean Doolittle said when discussing what he wanted to see from the Astros in response. “And I don’t know because part of me wonders if you’re the kind of person that’s willing to do that, are you able to step back and see how that affects the integrity of the game? Can you see how it erodes public trust and fan confidence in the product that we have on the field?”
When the Astros advanced to the World Series against Washington, the Nationals began getting tips from around the majors. General Manager Mike Rizzo noted Friday that Washington “got a lot of volunteer phone calls on how to beat them and how to play them.”
Some came from Brian Dozier’s former teammates with the Los Angeles Dodgers, who faced the Astros in the 2017 World Series. Another came from former Red Sox manager Alex Cora to Nationals Manager Dave Martinez. Nationals starting pitcher Max Scherzer communicated with reliever Tony Sipp, who was with the Astros before pitching for Washington last regular season. Stephen Strasburg mentioned Friday that baseball is “smaller than you think” and a “tightknit community,” referencing the help Washington received before facing Houston.
The overarching advice called for the Nationals to proceed as if the Astros were using video to illegally steal signs.
“You kind of go into this bout of paranoia a little bit. But luckily we discussed it and we kind of had a good program in place to where it was virtually impossible,” Strasburg said. “It was nothing they saw before. And we kept it really close to the chest.”
The Nationals’ plan centered around five sets of signs for each pitcher. The Nationals employed the plan earlier in the playoffs — against the Milwaukee Brewers, Dodgers and Cardinals, when Gomes grew confused — but it was ratcheted up when they played Houston.
It is common for teams to have alternate signs when a runner is on second base and can see the catcher put down his fingers. But the Nationals called every at-bat as if a runner was on second base. New wrinkles were put in, such as telling pitchers to obey the signs that followed two fingers from the catcher or changing signs on a hitter-to-hitter basis. This planning added time and layers to preparation, forced the team to use wristbands with the sign sets printed on them and made it easy for pitchers and catchers to get mixed up. But there were just a handful of instances in which that happened, players said.
MLB’s report revealed that the Astros cheated in 2017 and 2018. Their sign-stealing scheme at one point included banging of trash cans to tell hitters what pitch was coming. The Nationals, though, were not worried about trash can banging. They were more concerned about whistling and clapping from the dugout, according to three people in the organization.
Catcher Kurt Suzuki on Thursday accused the Astros of cheating during the World Series, telling The Washington Post that he heard whistling from the Astros’ dugout and that he felt the Astros had devised more effective ways to conceal illegal practices.
On Saturday, on the other side of a shared spring training facility, Astros shortstop Carlos Correa offered a sharp rebuke.
“You have the audacity to tell the reporters, yeah, they were cheating because we heard the whistles?” Correa told reporters. “The fans whistle in the game. The fans are whistling all the time in the game. What does a whistle mean? So don’t go out there telling reporters that we were cheating, and don’t go above MLB, the investigation, the lawyers, the report, when there was obviously nothing going on.”
Gomes does not believe the Astros were doing anything untoward during the World Series. Yet the plausibility of normal baseball stadium sounds perhaps being a covert cheating code speaks to the potential impact of this scandal. Multiple Nationals reflected on how it will now be more difficult to suspend disbelief. Unusual outcomes, such as hitters making good swings on tough pitches, could prompt moments of doubt. Did the hitter know that was coming because of pitch-tipping or because of a runner picking up signals from second base? Or was it cheating?
In the World Series, the Nationals felt they always had to assume the worst.
“You’d have to start thinking about it,” Gomes said. “Sometimes it was just bad pitches and we would overthink.”