Don’t just consider what that means. Embrace it. Win two of three games over the Astros in a weekend set at Nationals Park, and the Nats would be . . .
All right, all right. Walk it back a bit, even if the past 11 teams to go up 2-0 in a World Series have won the whole dang thing. If going 1-0 today — Manager Dave Martinez’s unrelenting mantra — means ignoring the possibilities ahead, then at least, with Thursday’s day off, consider the hows and whys of the Nats’ arrival at a place where (admit it) we’re all wondering whether a return to Texas will even be necessary.
Who dreamed such thoughts were possible?
“We didn’t think anything,” veteran Howie Kendrick said. “We just go play.”
There’s a T-shirt for you: Thinking=bad. Playing=good. The roots of all this were established back in the season, both by happenstance and with purpose. But they have sprouted here, over two games in which the better, more meaningful at-bats have been delivered by the Nationals, not the we’ve-broken-the-code-of-baseball Astros. In those two games — victories by Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg over Gerrit Cole and Justin Verlander — the gutsiest pitches and the better defense were turned in by Washington.
Sum it up this way: The Nats have risen. The Astros have shriveled.
“We’ll be fine,” Astros Manager A.J. Hinch said.
Hinch’s evidence comes from the past three seasons. It decidedly does not come from the past two nights.
Take two instances from Wednesday: Tie game, bottom of the sixth, two outs, Astros on first and second, Strasburg on fumes, pinch hitter Kyle Tucker at the plate. The Astros are masters at spitting on a pitcher’s best pitch, at fouling off others, and forcing you to give in. On a 3-2 count with the runners on the move, Strasburg had 113 pitches behind him — and a brilliant one ahead. The, um, backbone it takes to execute the curveball that struck Tucker out can’t be overstated. It might be the pitch of Strasburg’s career.
“The thing about Stras is: He’s really grown,” catcher Kurt Suzuki said.
And it set up the seventh. Forget what the Nationals did right — led by Suzuki’s mammoth, tiebreaking homer off Verlander — and consider what the Astros did wrong. Verlander walked the next hitter, Victor Robles, his last. Reliever Ryan Pressly walked his first batter and later uncorked a wild pitch. Cap it off by Alex Bregman — the presumed American League MVP who is all but melting down here — throwing away a ground ball to third, and the anatomy of the Nats’ decisive six-run inning was rooted as much in Houston’s knees absolutely buckling as it was in anything the Nats did right.
Which fits how the Nats got here, by playing with house money for the past five months. Whatever the end result of this series and this season end up being, the story will begin, in a way, May 23 with that mark that is seared on the brain of every Nationals fan: 19-31. They reached that bottom and began the trudge back, and a looseness developed. Whether it was related directly to the poor start or not, it’s undeniable. Hey, no one expects anything of us now, so what the bleep?
“It was kind of like we’ve got our attitude: Screw everybody else,” third baseman Anthony Rendon said. “We don’t worry about what’s going on outside of our clubhouse. We worry about the 25 guys in here that are actually grinding.”
To their credit, the Nationals have largely dismissed the “no one believed in us” tripe sometimes embraced by teams that were written off. Rather, they have wrapped themselves more in “we believed in ourselves,” which of course matters more anyway.
So it’s worth reminding yourself, as the lining of your stomach gradually deteriorates over the course of these games, the unlikelihood that they’re here at all. Not just with the 2-0 lead. But in the World Series.
“I think we’ve kind of defied the odds to this point,” Rendon said.
The freedom with which they played led them to 93 wins in the regular season when that number appeared unrealistic. That run included eight straight wins to close the regular season, which means they were on a full-on 17-2 sprint into Wednesday night’s game, which is an unprecedented stretch for this franchise since baseball returned to Washington 14 years ago. Now it’s 18-2. What’s the difference?
Pressure is what you make of it, of course, and different characters react in vastly different ways. But it’s undeniable the Los Angeles Dodgers, winners of the past two National League pennants, had more of it on them than the Nats in the division series between the two. Did that decide the outcome? Not likely. Were the Nats freed up because of it? I would say so.
Now here come the Astros, World Series champions in 2017, ALCS participants in 2018, characters for whom no consolation prize will do.
“I don’t believe in alleviating the pressure,” Hinch said before Game 2. “You have to know it’s there. It’s going to be there regardless. You can’t fake it. You can’t pretend it. You embrace it. You deal with it. You have to be comfortable with it.
“So rather than try to pretend like it doesn’t exist, you have to figure out a way to use it to your advantage and use it as motivation.”
Within all that are some great notions, and Hinch would seem adept at delivering that message, in bits and pieces, to his charges. But you know what? Martinez doesn’t even have to bother. Go 1-0 today? That was true May 24. It was true Oct. 23. It will be true in Game 3 on Friday.
“We know the series isn’t over,” Rendon said. “I think it would have been a success if we came in and stole one game, obviously.”
There are, as we enter the final week of the season, new wrinkles for the Nats, too. Since he endured chest pains in the dugout and ended up in an ambulance to the hospital Sept. 15, Martinez has been prevented from ingesting caffeine. He used to be hyper. Now how can he help but be calm?
“The guys in the dugout always come up to me, and they put their hand on my heart to see what’s wrong,” Martinez said. “And I have to tell them all the time, ‘Hey, I’m fine.’ ”
Which is how the Nationals are right now. Just fine. More than fine. Washington’s last World Series title, in 1924, is preserved on grainy black-and-white film. Close your eyes, and envision the HD version this team is filming. Enjoy the weekend. What a world.
For more by Barry Svrluga, visit washingtonpost.com/svrluga.