The day after the Nats won their title, I called last October “the greatest postseason upset run in the history of baseball.” It was. Yet it’s more. But how much more? There’s no exact answer, but before baseball is back, let’s have a solid general sense.
On Sunday, the anniversary of the start of the Nationals’ turnaround last season, Washington will have a celebration on Zoom to unveil its World Series championship rings and to honor its players, who remain largely unheralded and literally uncelebrated this year.
The 2019 Nats were not the best major league team ever — or even near it. Nor did they play in the most consistently thrilling World Series ever. Analytics-based “leverage indexes” say the 2019 Series was about average for sustained tension. The Nats actually “relieved” three games of late-inning tension with important runs in the seventh or eighth inning in Houston. The Nats also didn’t have a walk-off win in October and had just two one-run victories — always headline-grabbers.
We must be fair to get this approximately correct. How many other champs stand as high as the Nats in so many remarkable areas? And what is that worth?
First, the clear factual distinctions.
- Only one other team fell a dozen or more games under .500 yet rose to win the World Series: the Miracle Boston Braves 105 years earlier.
- No team ever came from behind to win five elimination games. The chances of pulling off such a combination, measured from the worst moments, is 0.0003 percent. Three math profs have told me that, though I cooked up an amusingly arbitrary method of categorization, the stat is close enough to correct.
- No team ever beat two 105-win teams in the same postseason. And the Nats had to win back-to-back elimination games against both the 106-win Los Angeles Dodgers and the 107-win Astros. In 50 years of multitiered playoffs, the closest comparable is the 2004 Boston Red Sox, who beat two teams that combined for 206 wins.
- No team had ever won three winner-take-all games in a postseason.
- And no team had ever won four World Series games on the road — and it happened in Houston, where the Astros cheated in 2017 and 2018. In 2019? Who absolutely knows?
All of that, washing over us at once, seems borderline unbelievable. But when you use part of a pandemic to study the title treks of every major league champ, what knocks you flat is that dozens of them had incredible journeys while many others stomped so many foes flat that they make the Best Team Ever list unwieldy.
As impressive as the Nats’ recovery was, from 28th place out of 30 teams May 23, trailing in the National League East by 10 games and even 8½ games out of the second wild-card spot, several World Series winners were in deeper holes in the standings.
Four champs have faced worse: the 2003 Florida Marlins (15½ games behind), the 1914 Braves (15 games behind and, at their worst, 16 games under .500), the 1978 New York Yankees (14 games behind) and the 1964 St. Louis Cardinals (11). The Nats’ biggest division deficit actually came in September, when they were 10½ back (as were, at some point in the season, the 2011 Cardinals and 2002 Anaheim Angels); the 1969 Miracle New York Mets and the 1942 Cardinals were 10 back.
The 1985 Kansas City Royals won six elimination games in one postseason, and the 2012 San Francisco Giants, like the Nats, won five. The Nats’ distinction, their trademark, is that they trailed in all five. The Giants never trailed in any, and the Royals only once — and in that one, umpire Don Denkinger saved them.
No playoff series matches the Red Sox’ comeback from a 3-0 deficit against the Yankees in 2004 — still the best baseball I have seen, both for one-series drama and 86 years of hate-filled context. No individual Nats playoff victory approaches it. But what about the Milwaukee Brewers, Dodgers and Astros fireworks combined — those five elimination comebacks? Then pile that comeback from 19-31 on top of it.
See how the 2019 Nats keep bobbing back up, joining the teams at the top of the conversation? With time, an added element of historical importance will grow: Of all the teams in all the World Series that you would hope would be defeated, the Astros, with their history of cheating, now top the list.
Who beat them? A Nats team with 14 fewer regular season wins. How many times has a team with a bigger win deficit stolen the World Series? Once. In 1906.
In 1954, in what may be the biggest World Series upset ever, the New York Giants also had 14 fewer wins than the Cleveland Indians. See, the 2019 Nats just keep sneakin’ up on you.
What defines the stay-in the-fight Nats is the way their chemistry and joy in competition elevated them above their 93-win talent, allowing them to defy odds not just in a long race for a playoff spot, in one series as an underdog or in some other matchup in which they trailed, but for 160 days, always in new ways.
What pitchers did they whip in October? In the wild-card game, the Nats beat Milwaukee’s Josh Hader, who had not blown a two-run save situation all season. They hung another set of October goat horns on Dodgers future Hall of Famer Clayton Kershaw; Stephen Strasburg beat him as a starter, and Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto homered off him back-to-back as he blew a lead in relief in Game 5 of the division series.
St. Louis had the second-best starting rotation in the NL by ERA; the Nats swept all four of their top starters, never trailing in the NL Championship Series. The Cardinals’ wins leader, Dakota Hudson, got one out — and allowed seven runs.
In the World Series, they beat Cooperstown-bound Justin Verlander twice, with long homers by Kurt Suzuki, Adam Eaton and Soto. The 2019 strikeout king, Gerrit Cole, lost for the first time since May 22 in Game 1 with homers from Ryan Zimmerman and Soto. And the Nats won a Game 7 started by former Cy Young Award winner Zack Greinke.
For years, baseball fans will want a sense of why Washington’s 2019 experience knocked the city for such a jubilant loop.
The truth does not reside in any single thing, even the city’s 95-year wait between World Series titles, but in the happy weight of everything together, from Baby Shark to dugout dancing to months of staying in the fight to “Go 1-0 today” and comeback elimination wins. It’s drubbing future Hall of Famers time after time. It’s car-racing Howie Kendrick and Eaton, relievers Daniel Hudson and Sean Doolittle, Aníbal Sánchez and Trea Turner, and modest manager Dave Martinez, none of whom seem Cooperstown-bound, being at the very center of a truly great title.
Don’t let anybody tell you that, since 1903, there have been many championships more special than this one. You can count ‘em on your fingers. Or maybe, absolutely everything considered, on just one hand.