But the grit, chemistry and resilience that separate this team from those before it are hidden in the numbers, too. With two outs in the top of the seventh inning Wednesday night, the Nationals were clinging to a one-run lead, already plotting how they could find the relief help to hold it. Before they made another out, that lead was six.
No one can really explain what makes some teams better with two outs than others. Luck plays a role. So does roster construction, and the Nationals’ emphasis on contact this season probably explains some of their success. But many baseball lifers will point to something different, a mentality — a willingness to, well, stay in the fight.
“I think it’s just the mentality of this team and this lineup. You don’t see it all the time,” Nationals hitting coach Kevin Long said. “But you just get the feeling with this team that when it’s late in the game or when there’s two outs, somebody’s going to do something special.”
The 2018 Nationals, also coached by Long, were not hapless with two outs. They posted a .747 on-base-plus-slugging percentage in those situations, better than all but two National League teams. They scored 41 percent of their runs with two outs. These Nationals led the NL with an .811 two-out OPS this season and an .829 OPS with two outs and runners in scoring position.
In the postseason, they have been even better. Entering Wednesday’s game, they were hitting .297 with two outs and runners in scoring position in the postseason. In the regular season, against less polished rosters and less formidable bullpens, no NL team hit more than .265.
“Not really,” Adam Eaton said when asked whether there is anything that explains what this team has done in those situations. “We’ve just done a really good job, again, all year, of manufacturing runs. . . . What they give you, you take, and that’s kind of what we’ve done.”
They manufactured more two-out runs Wednesday night as they blasted away any doubt about their Game 2 fate in that seventh inning. With two outs and the bases loaded, Howie Kendrick singled. Asdrúbal Cabrera singled. Ryan Zimmerman singled, the last two with two strikes.
The Astros didn’t help themselves defensively. But the Nationals forced their hand. They put the ball in play. They haven’t always been good at that. This year, as Astros Manager A.J. Hinch noted after Monday night’s game, the Nationals have been very good at that. The 2019 Nationals struck out 1,308 times, second fewest in the National League.
“People talk about strikeouts,” Nationals Manager Dave Martinez said after Wednesday’s game, when asked about the keys to two-out magic. “But I don’t believe in them.”
The transformation of this roster to one that better conforms with Martinez’s beliefs, in some ways, is easy to trace. The Nationals effectively replaced power-hitting, big-swinging Bryce Harper in the outfield with speedy, contact-oriented Victor Robles. Instead of a mix of injured Daniel Murphy and still-green Wilmer Difo, the Nationals played Kendrick, Brian Dozier and midseason acquisition Cabrera at second base — all veteran hitters with mature approaches. Behind the plate, the Nationals replaced the combination of big-swinging Matt Wieters and light-hitting Pedro Severino with Yan Gomes and Kurt Suzuki.
They made those changes over the course of years, after years of having the pressure applied to them, of watching other teams use dropped third strikes or two-strike bloops or a bad hop here or there to beat them. They decided they couldn’t be a swing-for-the-fences-and-hope team.
Before the 2017 season, they traded three elite pitching prospects for Adam Eaton, a deal in which many thought they overpaid, to ensure they would have a high-contact pest at the top of their lineup for years to come. They traded outfield prospect Daniel Johnson, who made the Futures Game this year, to Cleveland to ensure they would have a catcher — Gomes — who could make contact and provide good defense. They traded a promising left-handed pitcher for Kendrick in 2017 then re-signed him, locking up a reliable, steady hitter off the bench.
“I think the lineup we’ve been striving to build as we turned things over was one that could find ways to score runs without the long ball,” Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo said. “. . . We struck out the second least in baseball, and that was by design. I think it just leads to better at-bats and more pressure on the pitcher. The more balls in play, the more chance something will happen.”
But those changes, the slow reshaping of the lineup, didn’t necessarily foretell an October change like this. The 2018 Nationals hit .254. The 2019 Nationals hit .265. The 2017 Nationals, the last team to play in the postseason, struck out 41 times in a five-game series. The 2019 Nationals struck out 42 times in a five-game division series.
But the 2019 Nationals advanced, then advanced again and lead the World Series 2-0. What the Nationals have been able to do with two outs in this postseason — embodied in what they were able to do with two outs Wednesday night — has helped them reach this point, two wins from a title.
But what has changed with two outs, like so much of what has changed for them this postseason, isn’t as easy to explain.