The Nats, who will host the National League wild-card game against Milwaukee on Tuesday, won their eighth straight game to give them 93 wins for the season. If you’d foreseen that, or anything close to it, on May 23, you could have turned a small mound of cash into a large hill of bills at the expense of someone in Las Vegas.
According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the Nats’ 93 wins are the most for a team that was 12 games under .500 at any point during a season since the 1914 Boston Braves finished 94-59 after being 28-40. That Boston club still has a nickname in baseball lore: the Miracle Braves. They swept the supposedly better Philadelphia Athletics, chocked with Hall of Famers, in the World Series.
Good teams are a dime a dozen. Teams that mortify themselves for 50 games, fall near the bottom of the sport, provoke people (including me) to call for the firing of the manager, then play 74-38 ball — which is about as excellent (.661) as the best major league teams ever play for an extended period — are seriously uplifting.
Before the Nats engage in what is an often cruel one-game season Tuesday, in which either team may advance because of one fabulous play, one comic blunder or one total fluke, we should digest what we’ve already enjoyed for the past 112 games. Because, unless you plan to live another 105 years, you’re probably never going to see anything quite comparable again.
Luckily for us, such tales are usually about something extra — a special component — in addition to normal baseball stuff. That’s one of the game’s gifts. This Nats season was about the power and joy of men from Venezuela to Folsom, La.; from the Dominican to Rapid City, S.D.; from Brazil to Las Vegas, joining in one uninhibited, embrace-our-diversity, summerlong party. It’s about Kurt Suzuki, of Japanese and Hawaiian ancestry, dancing Bollywood style in the dugout after hitting a home run “in honor of some of my Indian friends.” It’s about getting Stephen Strasburg to smile, dance and accept a group hug.
On Sunday, I said to Nats closer Sean Doolittle, “They ought to change the name of this team to the Washington Internationals.”
Doolittle started laughing and said: “That’s right. It’s absolutely a strength of ours — 100 percent. We didn’t start winning until Gerardo Parra came in May. We’re lucky to have these guys here — the Latin guys.
“There’s something about the way this group clicks. The clubhouse is one big comfort zone. [The Latin players] bring energy. They have fun. They put other people at ease. People come out of their shell. We did not have that last year — for sure. The chemistry wasn’t there.”
Of course, having a veteran who chooses “Baby Shark” as his walk-up song has a way of making everyone act silly. It probably doesn’t hurt that he drives a yellow scooter to the ballpark — and sometimes around the clubhouse.
Every team in the majors looks for every edge from analytics, but how do you turn human interaction — clubhouse chemistry — into wins?
In the past two years, the Nats and General Manager Mike Rizzo have tried to crack the code. They hired a manager they thought matched the task, then last winter they grabbed every “high character” or “team leader” or “glue guy” on the market. Pitcher Aníbal Sánchez, catchers Suzuki and Yan Gomes and infielder Brian Dozier fit the bill. Revered Howie Kendrick returned from injury. Rookie Victor Robles, a natural leader at 22, went straight into the starting lineup. Also, a few players who departed may have been addition by subtraction.
In April and May, the Nats gazed, perplexed, at their chemistry beaker — which already had well-respected leaders such as Max Scherzer, Adam Eaton, Doolittle and, in their own ways, Anthony Rendon, Trea Turner and Juan Soto, just 20. Not a bad apple in the barrel. Yet the combination was inert.
Then the Nats picked up castoff Parra because injuries had left them desperate for a warm, professional outfield body. The Nats weren’t trying to be brilliant, though Rizzo knew Parra from his Arizona days. In his second game, Parra had a pinch-hit grand slam. This was no shock from a man with 1,312 career hits, two Gold Gloves and $42 million in salaries.
What stunned the Nats was Parra himself. Just by being himself, he demanded, playfully, that everyone have fun, almost all the time. He hugged after hits. He and Sánchez cooked up the dugout dance party after every home run. Parra wore funky, orange-tinted sunglasses throughout the game. Soon, Sánchez was next to him in pink-tinted specs — standing on the top step for three hours, studying the game, chattering, joking, getting teammates involved in talking baseball during the game — even on days they didn’t play.
Soon, every Nat who got a single turned to the dugout and made a tiny gesture with his thumb and index finger — like a Baby Shark biting. For a double, they made their whole hand a Mama Shark snapping jaw. For a homer, the Nats made huge chomping Daddy Shark motions with both arms.
The whole crowd joined in. Soon cheesy, cheerful shark gear appeared.
Somehow, the mystery of human interaction, the personalities of Sánchez and Parra, both from Venezuela, empowered all the other Latin players — Soto, Robles and Wander Suero from the Dominican Republic and Gomes from Brazil — to let out all the energy and joy that is ingrained in the béisbol cultures of their countries. Later, Fernando Rodney of the Dominican Republic and another Venezuelan, Asdrúbal Cabrera, joined the mix.
I first encountered this phenomenon 40 years ago doing a series of stories on winter ball in Puerto Rico, then a couple of years later I went to Cuba, too, and eventually the Dominican Republic. I always came back saying: “That kind of joy, that love of detail and subtlety in play, that sense of style is how baseball should be played. That is how fans should be totally engaged, cheering on every pitch — because the count changed. They ‘get’ the game we invented better than we do. Cool.”
To every wonderful or awful twist of the season, humiliation or glory, Parra would shrug and say, “That’s baseball.” A worldview in two words. The sport — not known for its playfulness toward those who try to master it — wrapped Parra in a hideous 3-for-51 slump in mid-August that left him without an RBI for 45 days. On Thursday, after the Nats had clinched a playoff spot, Martinez put Parra, usually a sub or pinch hitter, in the lineup every day to get him “fixed” so he, his glove, bat and energy could justifiably be part of the playoff roster.
In his last at-bat Thursday, he got a single. In 45 hours, from Friday night through Sunday afternoon, Parra — the man who went 45 days without an RBI — went 7 for 9 and drove in 11 runs.
“That’s baseball,” Doolittle quipped.
The Nats haven’t invented anything new. Other fine teams have had an almost magical camaraderie, such as the 2017 world champion Houston Astros and the Boston Red Sox winners with David Ortiz at their center. Long ago, Joe Morgan, Tony Perez and Pete Rose assigned themselves the job of unifying the Big Red Machine. Many great teams have been jubilant, resilient melting pots.
Of course, in these October matters, hitting, fielding and pitching — such as three-time Cy Young Award winner Scherzer starting Tuesday night — count for a little bit, too. You can’t just cheer and dance your way to a ring.
Some teams want to advance in the postseason for achievement and glory. No doubt, the Internationals do, too. But some teams are having such a fine time playing together that they just don’t want to come in for supper because it’s getting dark earlier. Hey, Mom, we want to keep playing! And the only way big leaguers are allowed to do that is to keep winning.
“Such a fun group,” Doolittle said. “We’re not ready for it to end.”