who remembers the last time a Washington baseball team played in the World Series. It was in 1933, 86 years ago. The next time is tonight.
During 33 of those years, we didn’t even have a baseball team in Washington. That makes the dry spell a little less remarkable, though perhaps even more painful. But even a 53 year dry spell is massive (longer than the one experienced by the Cleveland Indians — 1954 until 1995 — but not as long a wait as Chicago Cubs fans endured — 1945 until 2016).
Actually, Ted Lerner, owner of the Washington Nationals, was alive in 1933. He was almost eight years old when that World Series took place. Reportedly, however, he has no recollection of the event. His baseball memories begin in 1937 when the all-star game was played at Griffith Stadium.
Anyone who has watched even one of the Nats’ post-season games this year probably knows the basic story of the team (those who haven’t watched at least one probably don’t care). Four times in recent years, we crashed out of the playoffs in the first round. This year’s team began the season by winning only 19 of its first 50 games.
The Nats then won 74 games of the next 112 to earn a spot in the playoffs as a wild card team. They won the wild card game with a late rally against Milwaukee, and then knocked off the high-flying Dodgers and the Cardinals — two of the teams that broke the hearts of Washington fans in previous playoffs — to make the World Series.
How is it that the Nats team that enjoyed the least regular season success of the five that made the post-season is the only one that has had post-season success? To answer the question, we need to understand first that this edition of the Nats is as good as its predecessors. Yes, it lost more games. But that’s due to early season problems — serious injuries to key players and a bullpen meltdown — that have been fixed (the bullpen isn’t great, but it’s now decent). From June on, this team was among the very best in baseball.
The second thing to understand is the role of luck in the playoffs. During the 162-game regular season, the breaks tend to even out. Not so in a short playoff series (never mind a wild card game).
Compare this year’s rout of the St. Louis Cardinals to the heartbreaking loss to the Cards in 2012. That year, all the bounces seemed to go in favor of St. Louis, and their fielders seemed to make all of the plays. This year, the bounces went our way and St. Louis fielders failed on a number of occasions to make key plays.
In 2012, St. Louis hitters demonstrated extraordinary plate discipline. The Cardinals’ comeback in the deciding Game Five (from six runs down) was keyed by laying off of borderline pitches (and some that Nats fans will say were strikes) to draw walks.
This year, St. Louis batters couldn’t lay off of close pitches and sometimes swung at ones that weren’t close.
In other words, the Nats were lucky that, unlike in 2012, St. Louis didn’t play well.
But it wasn’t just the Cardinals who looked different. The Nats did too. The main difference was that they didn’t seem tight.
Before the wild card game, I predicted that Washington ace Max Scherzer would give up a home run or two early on (not a bold prediction in light of his form at the time), and that if the Nats didn’t make up the deficit early, their hitters would start pressing, thus “getting themselves out,” as the saying goes.
The Nats did fall behind quickly — 3-0 on two Milwaukee homers — and didn’t get the runs back early. However, they kept their composure and made up the deficit late, with three runs in the bottom of the eighth inning. The last of these runs resulted from a Milwaukee error — the luck factor again.
In the two series that followed, the Nats continued to stay relatively loose, or so it seemed. This, I think, was a key to defeating the Dodgers in a matchup that could have gone either way.
Why is this edition of the Nats less up-tight than its predecessors? Most who follow the team closely attribute it to “the Parra effect.” In a variation on this theme, I suggest it’s due to a Latino effect.
Gerardo Parra is a 32 year-old veteran who joined the Nats in May after being released by the San Francisco Giants. His arrival corresponded roughly to the team’s resurgence.
Parra has played well, but is only a utility man. Proponents of the Parra effect focus on his influence in the dugout and clubhouse.
Parra is a free spirit. He wears funny glasses and cuts up in the dugout.
For walk-up music, he selected “Baby Shark,” a kiddie tune. Soon, it became a theme for the entire team and its fan base. Players who reach base typically make shark gestures to their teammates. Fans, some wearing shark get-ups, go crazy when the song was played.
The first time I witnessed this, I vowed to become a Phillies fan if it kept up. My curmudgeon act aside, the shark thing seemed to loosen up the team and to energize a flagging fan base.
Teams and their fans can use a genuine, from the roots rallying theme like this. It doesn’t guarantee success, of course. In 2003, the Red Sox rallied around the theme of “cowboy up.” They failed in the post-season.
But “cowboy up” was a call to handle pressure. The Nats didn’t need that sort of theme. “Baby shark” is just silly and fun (for non-curmudgeons). That’s what the Nats seemed to need.
Then there were the “dance parties.” After a Nat hit a home run, Parra and his fellow Latino players (notably Juan Soto and Victor Robles) would organize a line, start clapping, and call on the successful batter to perform a little dance in the far end of the dugout.
Eventually, all of the Nats participated, even stoics like Ryan Zimmerman and Stephen Strasburg. This was no longer an uptight team.
Parra, as I said, is a utility player. He can set a good tone, but it’s the regulars who can’t be too tight in key situations on the field.
Soto (age 20) and Robles (age 22), both from the Dominican Republic, never seemed tight no matter what the occasion. Soto is one of the team’s three hitting stars (along with Anthony Rendon and Howie Kendrick). He went into slump late in the season, and it carried over to the post-season.
Most players, especially young ones, would become almost worthless in the playoffs under these circumstances. Indeed, we have seen some massive failures along these lines this year.
But Soto, in spite of his troubles, managed to get key hits throughout the playoffs. It was his hit off of Josh Hader that sent home the runs that defeated Milwaukee. His home run off of Clayton Kershaw in the decisive Game 5 of the division series tied the score. Hader and Kershaw are two of the premier left-handed pitchers in baseball.
Against the Cardinals, Soto delivered a beautiful opposite field hit to drive home the first two runs of the Nats’ decisive seven run first inning. That hit came off of John Flaherty, who had been almost unhittable for months.
Pitcher Anibal Sanchez is another of Washington’s Latino contingent. Like Parra, he hails from Venezuela. When Sanchez isn’t on the mound he always sits with Parra, both sporting wildly tinted shades.
Sanchez got off to a terrible start this year, but he was the Nats’ secret weapon on the mound during the second half of the season. The occasion never seems too big for him, as he demonstrated with his tone-setting near no-hitter in Game One of the St. Louis series. This he accomplished with a fastball that rarely topped 90 mph.
I don’t wish to indulge in ethic stereotyping, but it’s my impression that, on this particular team, the Latin players have loosened up the more tightly-wired Anglo veterans and that, as a result, the team as a whole is handling post-season pressure better than its predecessors did.
But let’s not forget about luck. The Nationals will probably need a dose of good fortune to defeat a tremendous Houston Astros team. If they do, Washington will have its second championship baseball team and its first since 1924.