The Washington Nationals will play what is essentially their 113th wild card game of the season Tuesday night at Nationals Park against the Milwaukee Brewers. Of course the stakes are higher in this one than in the 112 that came before. But this team has been in must-win, wild card mode for months — ever since getting swept in late May by the Mets.
At 19-31, 12 games under .500, the Nationals were in danger of self-destructing.
Instead, they began playing like every game was win-or-go-home. Because, given the hole they had dug for themselves, it sure seemed that way. After all, only eight other teams in the history of baseball had managed to make the playoffs after being 12 games under .500.
“We were in playoff mode,” general manager Mike Rizzo said. “We were trying to win each and every game. Davey’s (Nationals manager Dave Martinez) line of we’re going to go 1-0 today, that was no joke. That was our plan when we got down that much, to win each and every game, to slowly claw our way back.”
The thing is, this team, which beat the Indians 9-2 Sunday to finish 93-69, may have been uniquely assembled to do just that — claw its way back.
There was a different vibe in this Nationals clubhouse from the early days of spring training — a little more upbeat, a little more passionate, a little less aloof. The absence of Bryce Harper eased the tension in the room — not that Harper was a bad teammate, but he was exhausting, and that was magnified by the constant questions about his future in his contract year last season.
The addition of a group of Latin players changed the personality of the team. Talented young outfielders Juan Soto and Victor Robles brought a sense of joy to Nationals Park.
Rizzo put the finishing touches on the roster by signing what they typically call “glue” guys — players like second baseman Brian Dozier, catchers Kurt Suzuki and Yan Gomes and others who, when a team found itself sinking wouldn’t start looking for life preservers.
“Not one player pointed a finger, none of these anonymous quotes like we had in years past,” Rizzo said. “I think the players know I don’t put up with that here. We weed out those guys. They are worried about the name on the back of the jersey. I want guys who are worried about the name on the front of the jersey.”
The Nationals have seen success before — four National League East division titles from 2012 to 2017. But you could make the case that those teams were front-runners — talented enough to lead but maybe not tough enough for what it would take to come from behind.
Now, no one wants to start 19-31. A coast-to-coast championship season would be the choice 100 out of 100 times. But if you did happen to find your team 12 games under .500, this Nationals roster appeared to be constructed to withstand that pressure.
“Not many teams, if any, are able to handle that,” Rizzo said. “When you go 19-31 you don’t make the playoffs. It is a credit to the leadership group in the front office, the manager and some of those veteran players in the clubhouse — especially after that Mets series. I met with the coaching staff. We had a great meeting and we felt we could slowly turn this around.”
That may have been the outcome, but the disastrous start obviously wasn’t the plan.
“Let’s not forget when we were 19-31 we had no players,” Rizzo said. “Five of our eight starting players were on the disabled list at the same time. It was difficult to win games in this league … with the lineups we were putting out there. Once we got some guys back, you could see it in their eyes they knew they were the best team in this division.”
Before the season, many believed the Nationals were the best team in the division. And for a long stretch, Washington played the best baseball in the league, going 69-38 after that Mets sweep. It should be pointed out that the Atlanta Braves won the NL East.
“Go back and read some of the media from back then,” Rizzo said. “Everyone wanted to fire the manager, get rid of some of the players, trade (Max) Scherzer and (Stephen) Strasburg. On a daily basis I was being told to fire Dave Martinez, and I responded, ‘How can you fire the manager when a third of his players aren’t even here?’” Rizzo said. “We didn’t know on May 24 what kind of team we had yet.
Rizzo said the turnaround happened because the Nationals had an “old-fashioned, old-school mindset of just grinding it out.”
A wild card mindset.
⦁ Hear Thom Loverro on 106.7 The Fan Wednesday afternoons and Saturday and Sunday mornings and on the Kevin Sheehan Show podcast.
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