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Naatz: Don’t give up on the Nationals

| Tuesday, October 29, 2019

On May 24, my family sat in stone cold silence as the Washington Nationals hit their 19-31 nadir. We’ve been fans since the team arrived in 2005, and never had we seen a season with such high expectations crash and burn so quickly. Eventually, my mom — an eternal optimist — broke the silence:

“I still think they’ll make the playoffs,” she said.

“Are you crazy? They’re terrible!” my dad responded. “You know what? If they make the playoffs, I will buy you a Delta Seat for a playoff game,” a reference to the cushy, impossible-for-plebes-to-obtain seats located immediately behind home plate at Nationals Park. “There’s no way!”

Five months later, the Nationals have just played their final home game of the 2019 postseason — Game 5 of the World Series. My mom never sat in her Delta Seat (Nice work, Dad!) and the Nationals’ season once again sits on the brink.

After storming out to a 2-0 lead in the World Series against the Houston Astros, the Nats dropped three straight at home. Not only did they lose, but they looked like pumpkins in the process, only scoring three runs in three games. The D.C. baseball fans who had waited 86 years for a World Series game and packed Nationals Park to the rafters never even had a lead to cheer. Now, a sense of inevitability pervades the series. The pesky Nationals have had their fun, but it’s time for the unstoppable Astros to smack them out of the way once and for all. Or so the narrative goes.

Not so fast.

Before this season, the conventional wisdom on the Nats is that they weren’t a big-time club. They’d cruise through the regular season before pulling a disappearing act in the playoffs. Ahead of the 2014 National League Division Series which his team won running away, pitcher Tim Hudson of the San Francisco Giants famously declared that the Nationals just didn’t have the guts, to put it politely. He was right.

This year was the polar opposite. No one gave them any chance after that horrendous start. After scratching and clawing their way into the Wild Card game, they bested the Milwaukee Brewers 4-3 on the strength of a three run eighth inning rally. The reward? A date with the Los Angeles Dodgers, the National League’s Goliath. D.C.’s Davids slayed “mighty” LA on the back of two elimination game victories, including a win in a decisive Game 5 which they trailed as late as the eighth inning. Simply put, the 2019 Nationals are a team that will not die.

Which begs the question: Why give up on them now?

This Nationals squad plays its best baseball with its back against the wall. After being counted out all year, I think they’re perfectly comfortable — if not thrilled — with the spot they’re in right now. Previous iterations of the team might have folded under the pressure. Not this bunch.

Furthermore, the pitching matchups from here on favor the Nats. Stephen Strasburg is scheduled to start Tuesday’s Game 6 opposite of Justin Verlander. Verlander has never won a start in the World Series and has looked shaky throughout October. Strasburg, on the other hand, has been practically unbeatable. If he wins Tuesday, he’ll have achieved the rare feat of a 5-0 October. The Nationals have to be feeling confident behind their best pitcher.

If the series reaches a Game 7, Max Scherzer — who was scratched from Game 5 due to neck tightness — would likely start for the Nationals. Scherzer is a battleship. A master competitor, the only thing you have to worry about with him is that he’s too intense. That’s a good problem to have in a winner-take-all elimination game.

Who would start Game 7 for the Astros? Having pitched Game 5, Houston superstar Gerrit Cole is off the table (except for a possible appearance out of the bullpen). That leaves Zach Greinke, or perhaps Astros manager AJ Hinch would opt for a bullpen game. Either way, neither choice is ideal for the Astros. Greinke is easily the team’s weakest starter, and their bullpen is vulnerable. If they can hold on in Game 6, there’s no reason to think the cardiac Nats couldn’t eke out a Game 7 victory.

Of course, they very well might come up short. The Astros are a great team, and the Nationals have some fatal flaws (most notably their bullpen, one of the worst ever for a playoff team). But after all that they’ve been through, they’re more than capable of winning the World Series. They just have to remember how they got there in the first place.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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About Tom Naatz

Tom is a senior at University of Notre Dame. He is majoring in Political Science and Spanish and is originally from Rockville, Maryland. Formerly The Observer's Notre Dame News Editor, he's now a proud columnist for the paper.

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