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Sunday, October 13, 2019

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

We’ve heard from Washington Nationals manager Dave Martinez for weeks that since May 24, his team has been essentially playing a wild card game every day to climb back into contention.

The season-long pressure has served his team well. The Nationals responded by playing the best baseball in the National League, and when the actual wild card game came around — an unforgettable comeback 4-3 win over the Milwaukee Brewers — the Nationals were battle-tested. When they were down 2-1 in the best-of-five NL Division Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers, they knew how climb back in, winning the last two games for the team’s first division series victory in five tries.


Now the Nationals find themselves up 2-0 over the St. Louis Cardinals in the best-of-seven NL Championship Series, winning the first two in St. Louis and coming home now for Game 3 Monday with their postseason stud, Stephen Strasburg, on the mound.

So how will the Washington Adversities deal with success?

After Saturday’s 3-1 Game 2 win at Busch Stadium, Martinez told reporters they were still in wild card mode.

“We got Stras on the mound, so hopefully he comes out and gives us what he can,” he said. “And hopefully he does what Sanchie (Anibal Sanchez) and Scherzer (Max Scherzer) did the last two games. But we still got a long way to go. My message after the game was still, hey, 1-0 every day.”

That may be the message, but it is simply not true anymore. Perhaps for the first time this year, the Washington Nationals are front-runners.

Teams with a 2-0 lead in a best-of-seven series have gone on to win that series 70 of 83 times in postseason history. And teams that have won the first two games on the road in a best-of-seven have gone on to win the series 21 of 24 times.

That’s not coming from behind. That’s not a wild card scenario. That’s not adversity.

That is in command. That is running from the front.

The Nationals don’t have a history of doing well when they are comfortable.

In their previous four division series failures, the Nationals, for the most part, coasted to NL East titles during the regular season. That dominance did not serve them well when they got to the playoffs in those division series.

When they went 98-64 in 2012, finishing ahead of the Atlanta Braves by four games, Washington found themselves down 2-1 after three games to the Cardinals in the best-of-five series. They won Game 4. But, as has been carved in stone tablets, the Nationals blew a 6-0 lead to go on to lose Game 5 by a 9-7 score.

In 2014, after finishing 96-66 and 17 games ahead of the Braves, they lost the first two games of the division series to the San Francisco Giants and then lost the series in four games. The 2016 Nationals won the NL East with a 95-67 record, eight games ahead of the New York Mets, and, despite taking a 2-1 lead in the series against Dodgers, lost the last two games and were eliminated.

Then there’s the 2017 season. The Nationals won the division with a 97-65 record, 20 games ahead of the Miami Marlins, found themselves down 2-1 in the division series against the Cubs and went on to lose once more in five games in a manner we no longer speak of.

Now they are up 2-0 in a league championship series — not just the farthest a Nationals team has gone in the postseason, but the most dominance any Nationals team has shown in the playoffs. And, make no mistake about it, it’s been dominance, despite the tight 2-0 and 3-1 margins of victory.

A Nationals victory during this comeback season has typically been messy and complicated. These two wins over St. Louis have been surgically precise, with both Sanchez and Scherzer carrying no-hitters late into their games.

So what we’ve seen here in the first two games hasn’t been what we’ve seen from a Nationals team this season, or postseasons of the past. But maybe it is who Washington should have been all along — with results finally matching talent.

In most of those past playoff seasons, the Nationals had been seen as among the most talented teams in baseball, if not the best, going into those years. That talent got small, though, in the playoffs, perhaps in part because they never had to play large and loud during the regular season. This time, though, the Nationals had to roar nearly every day to win after starting the season 12 games under .500. They couldn’t afford to shrink.

You can understand, then, why Martinez still wants to embrace the wild card identity of this team, even when they are seemingly in command of this series. But his team may have outgrown that persona, instead finally becoming a team that is comfortable large and in charge.

The Washington Nationals may have finally found their voice.

⦁ Hear Thom Loverro on 106.7 The Fan Wednesday afternoons and Saturday mornings and on the Kevin Sheehan Show podcast.


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