On this last episode, we look back on 23 years of joyous, difficult and always informative conversation.
Miss baseball and your 2019 World Series Champion Washington Nationals? We at the Kojo show do too, so let’s talk about that historic and incredible season.
From the “Will Bryce Harper stay or go” saga, to their dismal 19-31 start, to ending the season winning 10 of their last 11 games, to their wild playoff and World Series wins – let’s discuss it all with two journalists whose job is to do one thing: cover every aspect of our beloved Washington Nationals.
Produced by Kurt Gardinier
KOJO NNAMDIWelcome back. Where were you on October 30th when the Nats beat the Houston Astros in game seven to win their first World Series Championship? March 26th was supposed to be the Washington Nationals' first game of the season, their first game defending their first World Series title, a game in New York against the Mets.
KOJO NNAMDIWe'd been planning on dedicating our show on that day to talking about last year's wild World Series winning season and to preview this season. But that's when many things, including Major League Baseball, were shutting down. And so far no regular season games have been played and no decisions have been made about a potential shortened season.
KOJO NNAMDIBut that doesn't mean we can't talk about last year's historic Nats season, right? Joining us now to discuss it is Dan Kolko. He is the host of "Nats Xtra" show on MASN. Dan Kolko, thank you for joining us.
DAN KOLKOMy pleasure. Good to be here.
NNAMDIAnd Jesse Dougherty covers the Washington Nationals for the Washington Post and is the author of "Buzz Saw: The Improbable Story of How the Washington Nationals Won the World Series." You can recall that on this day a year ago, the 28th of May, the Nats beat the Braves 5-4. Stephen Strasburg pitched seven innings. Sean Doolittle eventually saved the game. At that point of the season they were 23-32.
NNAMDIJesse Dougherty, but let's start at the beginning of last year. How did spring training then go for the Nats and how big of a distraction was the drama surrounding Bryce Harper?
JESSE DOUGHERTYYeah, it certainly was a major storyline heading into spring training last February. The Nats, at that point, were pretty out of the sweepstakes so to speak. But, at the same time, because Bryce Harper was still a free agent, it sort of hung a bit of a cloud over spring training. I mean, this is a team preparing to go into a year without him. They were ready to move on, but until he signed with the Philadelphia Phillies in late February, a lot of the discussion surrounding the Nationals were very Bryce Harper focused.
JESSE DOUGHERTYAnd I think they were certainly ready to turn the page and move on to their new era without him as the star centerpiece of the team. But it took a bit for that to unfold. And they certainly were cast in the narrative of Bryce Harper going into last year.
NNAMDIHow did the Nats start the regular season, Jesse, and what were the expectations for the team at that time?
DOUGHERTYWell, the expectations going in were that they'd be competitive. They'd be in the mix in what was supposed to be a four-horse race in the ML east. And I think there was a lot of excitement. The lineup was stacked with a lot of really talented veterans. The rotation had been built up with the addition of Patrick Corbin.
DOUGHERTYAnd there was a lot of excitement there that it could be one of the best in the league, if not the best. And the fact that the Nats then go and flop and sink to 19 and 31 by May 23rd, which has become this sort of mythical date now in team history, it was disappointing. And it was largely driven by injuries. The team was sort of thinned down to the bone of what they were supposed to look like in terms of their lineup. The bullpen was really not doing great and was not servicing the rotation in the way it was supposed to.
DOUGHERTYBut the expectations were certainly much higher than what the team ultimately played to through a month in change, as you look into that May stretch when they really hit rock bottom.
NNAMDIDan Kolko, a year ago this past Sunday was the day the Nats turned things around. What happened on Mary 24th, 2019 and what was its significance to the team?
KOLKOWell, what happened was the Nationals won a baseball game that was not especially pretty. They were playing a bad Marlins team and they blew a couple leads. And they ended up picking up a win that day that, at the time, didn't really feel or seem like anything, you know, out of the norm. It was just another kind of sloppy win that, yeah, they hoped to build off of. But in that moment, I don't think anybody felt like that was going to be a galvanizing point for the Nationals team.
KOLKOBut they had come off of a really tough four-game sweep at the hands of the rival Mets up in New York. And, you know, things just started to come together from there. They started to play cleaner baseball. There were fewer errors defensively. The bullpen, while still an issue through much of the first half and even into July and August, started to slowly improve at periods, but they were getting healthier and they started to just play better.
KOLKOThere was kind of more of a sense of accountability amongst the team. Mike Rizzo talks about how, you know, he told his coaching staff at one point in May, you know, listen, we got to figure something out. We've got to make things turn around. Otherwise all of us are going to be losing our jobs. And they pieced it together. It didn't happen overnight. It was a slow process that got them from 19 and 31 back up towards 500. And then, you know, a little bit above 500 and then on a run that ended up taking them to a wildcard spot. And we know what happened from there.
NNAMDISpeaking of getting fired, Jesse Dougherty, let's go back to May 24th, 2019 again. Were you surprised Nats' management did not make any roster changes or fire Dave Martinez considering it was the franchise's worst 50-game start?
DOUGHERTYI don't know if I was surprised on May 23rd and 24th. I think looking back, the fact that the Marlins were coming into town, and Dan mentioned, you know, that team is a bad baseball team and they were, at that point, at the bottom of the national league. I think that gave maybe a little bit of a leeway for Dave Martinez to see, you know, if you can come out of this weekend, a four-game series at home with some rhythm, if you can get on track, then maybe this thing could turn the corner.
DOUGHERTYAnd I think you have to give a lot of credit to both ownership and General Manager Mike Rizzo, who would be sort of the nucleus of a decision-making process to do something as drastic as fire your manager for giving the team a bit more time. At that point the Nats had gotten healthy. A lot of their key players that were hurt in the beginning of the year, whether that's Trea Turner, Anthony Rendon, Juan Soto, were back, and the lineup was at full strength.
DOUGHERTYAnd it didn't show in that four-game sweep against the Mets in New York but there was an idea that now that this team was healthy, it did have an opportunity to show what it ultimately was made of. And I think the timing of the Marlin series was good. The Nationals wound up taking three of four and finding some of that rhythm despite some ugly wins. But I do think that there was always maybe another week of a buffer before the organization was going to really consider some drastic changes.
NNAMDIDan Kolko, what turned things around for the Nats? Was it simply getting healthy, as Jesse just mentioned? Were they -- weren't they -- were they just always a good baseball team as pitcher Max Scherzer said?
KOLKOYeah, I think the second part of that is a big part of it, that this was a talented team, that when they did get healthy, when they had the pieces there that they expected to have all along, they largely played to their potential. They needed to improve some areas of the roster and Mike Rizzo did so throughout August by adding a couple key relievers, especially Daniel Hudson, who ended up becoming the Nationals' closer for most of the stretch drive and then the post season run.
KOLKOBut, I mean, when you're without three of the top four hitters in your lineup, I don't think that many teams across Major League Baseball are going to be able to weather that and still play to the level that they expect to. So when they did get healthy and they had the team that they expected to have, they largely started playing the way that they expected to.
KOLKOAnd this team, for a number of years now, has had the names, has had the potential to deliver. And a number of times in the regular season they have and they didn't then carry that over to the post season. So even once they, you know, punched their ticket to the post season and they locked up a wildcard spot, there was kind of an air of uncertainty of whether this team was going to be able to deliver when other teams in the past hadn't. But I think all along, we all expected that if the Nationals were healthy they would be in the mix. They would be contending. And once they did get right, they were able to do that.
NNAMDISpeaking of moments, Jesse, you point to a series with the Cubs in August that made you realize that this Nats team was special. What was the aha moment in that series for you?
DOUGHERTYYeah, it was a really crazy weekend at Wrigley and the Nats ultimately wound up sweeping the Cubs, a team that at that point had added at the trade deadline, had big ambitions. They had played great at home all season. And the Nationals were coming off a really tough travel situation. They played Thursday night in Pittsburgh, had to get on a midnight plane to Chicago, landing around 3:00 a.m. and then getting to the ballpark around 9:00 a.m. for an afternoon game at Wrigley.
DOUGHERTYAnd I remember distinctly walking into that clubhouse and Victor Robles was sleeping in his stall, and guys were walking around like zombies. And you're sort of thinking, how is this team going to play a baseball game today? And if, you know, once they go out there what's that game going to look like?
DOUGHERTYAnd the first remarkable part of it is that the exact same lineup from the night before in Pittsburgh was on the lineup card again for the game in Chicago. So each guy who played went to Dave Martinez, including catcher Kurt Suzuki, and we know how taxing the catcher position is, went to Dave Martinez and told him that they wanted to play again. Because the Nats had found a rhythm in Pittsburgh. They were playing extremely well. The offense was just exploding and they wanted to keep that up. They didn't want to use the bad travel or the night game and the day game as an excuse to sit down and rest. And who could have blamed them if they did, but they wanted to keep rolling.
DOUGHERTYAnd I remember at the end of that series, Dave Martinez got really reflective. He teared up in the visitor manager's office and really was just reflecting on the season to date, the 19-31 start, the comeback. Now, they were in the thick of the wildcard race and even leading it. And the Nationals were certainly on their way to a playoff spot and a complete revival from where they were at the start of the season in the spring.
DOUGHERTYAnd I remember walking out of the office and one, thinking wow, the manager's really emotional for an August game. You know, you don't typically get that. But also that it really felt like a corner was turned. And there was a crazy celebration in the clubhouse that day. You know, the team was, you know, dancing. They made a Congo line and it was sort of like a big moment. And sometimes, you know, it feels like just another series or just another summer game. And there's so many games in baseball that it's hard to -- it's easy to pass them off as not meaning that much. But I remember thinking that those three games really felt emblematic of a bigger trend and that this team had something going for it.
NNAMDIHere's Bob in Arlington, Virginia. Bob, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
BOBHey, Kojo, how are you? I'm in Arlington now, but I'm a lifelong Washington native born and raised in northeast D.C. And my brothers and I, we used to go to the old Griffith Stadium all the time to see the team play there.
BOBI just wanted to say that I'm as excited as anybody else that the guys won this year, but I'm afraid they've lost me as a fan for a while. I was really disappointed when the fellas went over to see Trump at the White House. You know, they're baseball players, but they're also citizens. And I just think that showed some very poor judgment. So I suppose I'll get over it after a while, but I thought that ended the season for me on a sour note.
NNAMDIBob, thank you very much for your call. Bob underlining the fact that we all know that this town is a very political town. It's Washington, D.C. and that's the way things roll in Washington. People take very strong political stands and allow them to extend over into sports. So I won't pursue that any longer. But, Jesse, in your book "Buzz Saw," you do not discredit "Moneyball"-style metrics, a reference to that Jonah Hill movie about the Oakland A's 2002 season.
NNAMDINumbers are still important, as you say, but you highlight the team's chemistry there, "Baby Shark" joyfulness and fun. What was the chemistry like for the team last year? And we should add that they were the oldest team in the majors.
DOUGHERTYYeah, I think you're highlighting things that are often seen as intangible. And I think the Nationals were a really strong effective blend of sort of these new school tactics and this old school identity of a team built in the image of a former scout, which is Mike Rizzo. And likes to sort of use a lot of the sort of old guard, you know, ways and methods.
DOUGHERTYBut at the same time the Nationals infused that with a really good amount of, you know, detailed strategy and a lot of analytics and a really strong and smart analytic staff. So we did see sort of a clash of those two elements with this club. And I think that's what made them such a powerhouse in the end.
DOUGHERTYAnd you mentioned Gerardo Parra, "Baby Shark," coming in in May, and then by midsummer really having a hold on this whole region as sort of this cult hero playing "Baby Shark" as his walkup song and also sort of energizing the clubhouse in a really unique and effective way. And that veteran identity, the identity of just having fun and playing carefree after the season sunk to such low depths, was certainly two characteristics that this team felt really strongly about in terms of it being ingredients for their success. So I'd say a really genuine and effective mix of all those things is what made them a really strong club come the playoffs and obviously going into the World Series and in the win.
NNAMDIYou and I both mentioned that they were the oldest team in baseball last year. If they don't play again next year, does that buy Ryan Zimmerman another year as a player? Will 30 something pitchers like Max Scherzer have a great deal of trouble next spring trying to shake off more than a year of rest, Jesse?
DOUGHERTYI think that -- you know, I think it's hard for anybody to do that after sitting down for a year. And I also think it's worth noting that our idea of age is probably warped in sports. These guys are, you know, not 60 and 70 years old in the sense that they can't get their bodies revved back up. And they're maybe not as spry as the 22 and 23 year olds on the roster and around the league, but they're professional athletes. This is what they've done their whole lives. Most of their sole focus is to get their bodies ready to compete and stay in shape.
DOUGHERTYAnd even in the absence of baseball right now, I'm sure these guys are doing a lot to stay up to shape in that way. So, well yeah, it might be hard for Zimmerman to rev back up or Max Scherzer to tack another, you know, strong year onto his career. I do think that's what these guys get paid to do. They're better at it than anybody in the world. So it's certainly a conundrum and something they'll have to navigate, but I wouldn't count out that they'd be able to do that.
NNAMDIDan Kolko, the Nats finished the season winning 10 of their last 11 games, so they were rolling for their wildcard game against the Milwaukee Brewers. Talk about that game and ultimately Soto's go-ahead single in the eighth inning.
KOLKOYeah, that game was kind of slow developing, if you're a Washington Nationals fan. The Brewers jumped on top of Max Scherzer early. They put up a few runs in the first couple innings. And I think there might've been a narrative among D.C. sports fans that, you know, with the exception of the Capital's run in, what was that, 2018, that D.C. teams just couldn't get it done in the post season. And there might've been a sense of, oh no, here we go again developing.
KOLKOBut Nationals Park stayed loud, the fans stayed in it. And as we saw with the 2019 Nationals, they almost felt like they were a stronger team when they needed to come back late in the game or when their backs were against the wall. And that was something that played out over the course of October. And eventually they did kind of chip away. And then in the eighth inning the Brewers bring in their best reliever and one of the best relievers in all of Major League Baseball in Josh Hader.
KOLKOAnd the Nationals put together a great inning. They start getting a bunch of guys on base. And then Juan Soto rips a line drive into right field that looks like it's just going to tie the game. And instead it takes a hop that avoids Brewers' right fielder Trent Grisham. It gets by him. Three runs come around to score. The Nationals take the lead.
KOLKOAnd I think that, for the first time really in Nationals' post season history, felt like the baseball gods might've been smiling upon them, as compared to having a break go against them that would end up costing them. This was a ball that just caromed away and it benefitted the home team. And Nationals Park went absolutely insane. There were shots of people chucking their beers and their waters up in the air. And it was just a glorious moment.
KOLKOAnd it only meant that the Nationals were able to move on to the next round and face the Dodgers who had the top seed in the national league and the second most wins in Major League Baseball. But it did feel like, you know, a bit of a conquering moment that the Nationals were able to move past a little bit of that doomed post season history that they had in previous years, and give the fan base and the team something to continue to build upon and feel like this team might be different.
NNAMDIWe're running out of time and I want to make sure we finish the season. So I'll quickly summarize the hard fought national league division series. The Nats needed all five games of the MLB (unintelligible) to move past the Dodgers inning the elimination game 7 to 3 after a tenth inning grand slam by Howie Kendrick.
NNAMDIWith that swing the Nats moved onto the National League Championship Series or NLCS for the first time in franchise history. The National League Championship Series against the Cardinals was a big smoother. Jesse, how did the Nats dominate that series?
DOUGHERTYOh, they were just so hot at that point that I think that there was a lot of elements. I mean, the pitching just clicked in such a way. As detailed in "Buzz Saw" the event scouting for that series, you know, you think of sort of unsung heroes along the run. And in that case, Jim Cuthbert, the Nats event scout who's in charge of scouting the other team and his team of 12 scouts who were along for the ride during that playoffs, had such a detailed report on the Cardinals that pitchers like Max Scherzer, Anibal Sanchez, Patrick Corbin really credited the report and information they got with being able to really handle the Cardinals hitters.
DOUGHERTYSo while the offense for the Nationals stayed hot and was able to, you know, give the team leads and ultimately push them ahead on the scoreboard, the sort of underlying story there that we didn't really know at the time was that the pitchers really felt empowered and sort of comfortable with the report to the point where they were just on autopilot. I mean, it felt like every pitch they threw the Cardinals hitters were just entirely baffled. And that really played out across four games where the Nationals just totally handled that team and then advanced to the World Series.
DOUGHERTYSo certainly in a month full of drama, you know, with the matchups with the Dodgers, Brewers and Astros, that Cardinal series almost felt like a lull to an extent, because the team -- it was such a -- it seemed like such easy wins. Of course, no win's easy at that point in the season but the Nationals really were prepared and it showed.
NNAMDIWell, the Washington Nationals, after never getting out of the first round of the playoffs, heading to their first World Series against the Houston Astros, the most winningest team in baseball last year, here's what Cliff in D.C. has to say about that. Cliff, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
CLIFFWell, I just wanted to say that I think the win last year was even greater than what the press has put forward, because on the day that the Astros apologized for the 2017 cheating that they did, one of the Washington Post reporters asked Suzuki, the Nats catcher. And Suzuki said that last year they knew they were cheating last year and that the Nats changed their signals every single inning. And the fact that they won four games in the Houston ballpark, probably the best place for cheating, to me indicates a much greater win than we've been led to believe.
NNAMDICare to comment on that, Dan Kolko?
KOLKOWell, I think the Astros cheating scandal in 2017 and into 2018 is well documented. And there are certainly rumors and beliefs as to whether the Astros were continuing some sort of sign stealing in 2019 and into the post season, but regardless of whether or not that was happening, the Nationals were prepared for it. They wanted to make sure that they had that covered if there was any nefarious stuff going on.
KOLKOAnd whether or not the Astros were stealing signs in the 2019 World Series in Houston, they had the -- you mentioned, Kojo, they had the winningest record in Major League Baseball last year. They also had the best home record in Major League Baseball last year. And there were four games played at Houston's Minute Maid Park in the World Series. And the Nationals won all four of them. So that was a feat that, you know, sign stealing, no sign stealing, was a pretty impressive one by this Nationals team.
NNAMDILast month we had left-handed reliever Sean Doolittle on for our inaugural Kojo For Kids segment. And this is his answer to 13-year-old Abby from Arlington's question about the first thing he did right after winning the World Series.
SEAN DOOLITTLEWhen we got the last out of the game, everybody in the bullpen was jumping up and down and hugging each other. And then we ran in and we were jumping up and down on the infield. And I remember several times during that celebration kind of like wandering off a little bit, like, outside of the celebration and just, like, putting my hands on my head and I couldn't believe it.
NNAMDIThat was Sean Doolittle. Dan Kolko, you and Jesse both covered the Nats all season and for you, Dan, it's been nearly ten years since you started covering the team. What was your reaction when they won? What did you do?
KOLKOWell, I was up at our MASN studios getting ready to go on the air for our post game show along with my co-host Bo Porter. And it really was just joy. I mean, you know, for someone -- my answer will be different than Jesse's as an unbiased Washington Post reporter. You know, I've been affiliated with the team as a broadcaster for, as you said, a handful of years now. And you, you know, grow relationships with players and their families and General Manager Mike Rizzo and ownership. And you come to know these people as, not just people that you see around the ballpark, but as human beings.
KOLKOAnd you're just happy for them. You're happy for all that they've accomplished. You're happy for the fan base that, again, after a number of years of post season disappointment, was able to finally experience that joy that came with having success in October and being the last team standing. So it's a bizarre feeling. It's an incredibly joyous feeling, and, you know, I didn't accomplish anything myself. I was just kind of along for the ride. But you really do feel happy for everyone who did grind through so much and was able to get the payoff at the end.
NNAMDIJesse, we only have about 20 seconds left. What did you do?
DOUGHERTYI hit the file on the story and hoped it was all in English and legible and that I didn't screw it up too badly. That was my process. And then went into the clubhouse and the crazy champagne celebration and tried to shield my eyes and stuff, but it was a really fun night.
NNAMDII figured a keyboard would be involved in your celebration. (laugh) Jesse Dougherty and Dan Kolko, thank you both for joining us. Our look back at the Nationals World Series winning season was produced by Kurt Gardinier. And our conversation about local tourism was produced by Richard Cunningham.
NNAMDIComing up tomorrow on The Politics Hour, as the Washington region begins to reopen, we hear from Fairfax County board chairman Jeff McKay and D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser. Plus a preview of D.C.'s June 2nd primary. That's all coming up tomorrow at noon. Until then, stay safe and thanks for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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