Patrick Corbin tossed 238 strikeouts in the regular season and threw three crucial, scoreless innings of relief in Game 7. Gerardo Parra loosened up the clubhouse and got teammates and fans dancing, whether it was to Latin music or “Baby Shark.” Daniel Hudson closed out Game 7 and made the first lasting image of World Series celebration when he threw his glove in unbridled elation.
None of them were on the Washington Nationals’ roster 11 months ago.
The team that Mike Rizzo constructed last winter and tweaked throughout the season may have been light on reliable bullpen arms. There may have been doubt as to how a platoon of two 30-something catchers would fare or whether the bench was deep enough.
But Rizzo’s roster, which Howie Kendrick and others have called the best group of guys they’ve ever played with, has earned the Nationals their first World Series title.
Washington’s longtime general manager and president of baseball operations earned his second ring Wednesday when the Nationals beat the Astros 6-2 in Houston. Rizzo won his first in 2001 as the director of scouting for the Arizona Diamondbacks, and just as that team starred Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling, the Nationals also built around their dominant starting pitchers.
The Nationals won two-thirds of their games ever since their 19-31 start to the season — a .666 winning percentage over more than five months. They won three do-or-die games to push through the wild card and divisional rounds, then two more to come back from Houston’s 3-2 World Series lead for a record total of five elimination game wins in one postseason.
Not just any collection of players can pull that off.
“(Rizzo is) huge on chemistry and clubhouse stuff, not bringing in bad teammates, not bringing in bad guys,” Ryan Zimmerman said. “Before he makes really any sorts of moves, he’ll will reach out to us and ask if we’ve heard anything about this player or that player. So he’s big on that kind of stuff.”
To be fair, the Nationals have seen bad clubhouse vibes under Rizzo’s watch before — fans need only think back to Jonathan Papelbon trying to strangle Harper in 2015. But perhaps that provided an impetus for Rizzo to make personality a priority when deciding who to sign.
“It’s tough to get a group of guys together that are selfless, that care about winning games for the Washington Nationals and care about the name on the front of the jersey more than the back of the jersey,” Rizzo said after they swept the National League Championship Series. “We acquired those type of guys this year and you can see how it panned out.”
That included in-season moves for players Rizzo had prior relationships with like Parra and 33-year-old Asdrúbal Cabrera, who by posteason’s end was sharing second baseman duties with Kendrick. There was never an eye-popping acquisition during the year, only under-the-radar moves that kept the Nationals from hitting the luxury tax but still improved the team in some fashion.
Many saw the 2019 World Series as a showdown of new-school vs. old-school. The Astros were MLB’s poster boys of analytics, a franchise that fired many scouts a few years ago so they could rely more on technology. The Nationals were set up as the contrast, the team that still employed the grizzled scout that could tell you when a prospect had trouble with the curve.
But it isn’t that tidy a narrative. In reality, Rizzo has struck a balance, incorporating analytics into his decision-making with their own proprietary model they nicknamed “The Pentagon.”
“He leans on his scouts, on his guys that go watch games,” Ryan Zimmerman said. But “he’s evolved just like everyone else has with the analytics and all the data that’s available. That information is useful. I don’t think you have to be one way or the other. I think you can kind of blend it together, and I think he does a really good job of that.”
Rizzo went all-in on Corbin, giving him a six-year, $140 million contract in December when the Yankees and Phillies wanted him for a shorter term. Corbin’s postseason starts weren’t his best work — a 5.79 ERA and three losses, including a blown save. But after he held the Astros at bay late in Game 7, Max Scherzer was excited to praise his teammate.
“It’s not even about me. It’s about Corbin, what Corbin did,” Scherzer said. “What Corbin came in and did was throw three shutout innings. That was huge to keep them at bay. That just showed you what our team was made of. It’s not just one guy. Everybody who could get into the game stepped up and did something.”
And for how the bullpen’s unreliability seemed to be the yearlong storyline of this team, credit Hudson. Rizzo made three deals on trade deadline day that brought in three relievers — Hudson, Roenis Elías and Hunter Strickland. Hudson’s presence had the greatest impact. He eventually moved into the ninth-inning role which freed up normal closer Sean Doolittle to become a setup man.
“The day we acquired (Hudson), he went into Davey’s office (and said), ‘Any role, any day, any amount of innings, I’m ready to go,’” Rizzo said. “And that really was the mindset we’ve had since we bottomed out in May, and we’ve been riding that wave ever since.”
They rode that wave all the way to the Fall Classic, something that Washington sports fans hadn’t seen for generations and something that they’ll remember for generations to come.
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