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Washington Nationals hope to ride pitching power trio to World Series title, as Senators did nearly a century ago...

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Will Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, and Gio Gonzalez lead the 2017 Nationals the way Walter Johnson, Tom Zachary, and Firpo Marberry led the 1924 Senators?

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US President Calvin Coolidge and Washington Senators pitcher Walter Johnson shake hands, presenting the "American League diploma" for the Senators winning the AL in 1924.
Photo - Public Domain - via Library of Congress

The Washington Nationals enter the postseason this weekend in an enviable position, with three of the top pitchers in the league. It’s a formula that worked here once before, when the 1924 Washington Senators rode three elite pitchers to the city’s first pennant and sole World Series championship.

This year, the power trio – with apologies to the band Rush – features the National League’s second, third and fifth best pitchers in ERA: Max Scherzer (2.51), Stephen Strasburg (2.52) and Gio Gonzalez (2.96). Ninety-three years ago, Washington ace Walter Johnson led the American League with a 2.72 ERA. Teammate Tom Zachary (2.75) was second, and the team’s rookie swingman, Firpo Marberry, was sixth best at 3.09. (The Senators also featured a 16-game winner, George Mogridge, who posted a rather pedestrian 3.76 ERA). Scherzer and Johnson both led the league in strikeouts, but in a sign of how the game has changed, they finished more than 100 apart. Johnson fanned 158 in 1924; this year Scherzer struck out 268.

Johnson was the big national story that year, as fans from all over the country in the midst of the Roaring ‘20s rooted for the 36-year-old nice guy – and underdog Senators – to finally get to the World Series. “There is more genuine interest in him than there is in a presidential election,” Will Rogers wrote in a syndicated column that September, titled “Everybody Is Pulling for Walter.”

Major League Baseball player "Firpo" Marberry with the Washington Senators, during the 1924 World Series.
Photo © United States Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs division.

In 1924, the defending champion New York Yankees posed a formidable foe. Babe Ruth, in his prime, led the league with 46 home runs – more than double the total for all of Washington’s players – as the two ball clubs battled in a furious pennant race.

Johnson carried the Senators on his back, going 23-7 with six shutouts. But when it came to the decisive game, it would fall to Johnson’s pitching mates, Zachary and Marberry. On the second-to-last day of the season, Washington had a two-game lead over the Yankees, needing just one victory to clinch the pennant.

Playing at Boston’s Fenway Park in front of a friendly crowd, the Senators, aka Nationals, turned to Zachary, seeking his 16th victory of the year. The southpaw didn’t have his best stuff, giving up two runs in the first three innings, and player-manager Bucky Harris pulled him in favor of Marberry with the Nats leading the Red Sox 3-2.

Marberry was making his league-leading 50th appearance (including 14 starts), and his 10th in the team’s previous 19 games. Just the day before, understandably, he had complained of a sore arm. But he was able to quell the Sox bats, pitching six shutout innings as Washington pulled out a 4-2 victory.

Hundreds of fans rushed onto the field to mob the Senators, and thousands more cheered the team – happy to see the American League’s sentimental favorites win a pennant, and for good measure, eliminate the hated rival Yankees. Fans tossed straw hats into the air and waved handkerchiefs, and some lifted Senators owner Clark Griffith from his seat in the stands and ferried him down to the dugout. Meanwhile, back in Washington, thousands had congregated in the drenching rain to watch mechanical scoreboards register updates from Boston. More fortunate fans listened to the game indoors on radio station WRC.

President Calvin Coolidge, a Yankee in the literal sense (hailing from Vermont), sent a congratulatory telegram to Bucky Harris: “We of Washington are proud of you and behind you. On to the world’s championship.” The pennant was front-page news the next day not just in the Washington Post and old Washington Star but also in other newspapers, including the New York Times and Boston Globe.

The Senators’ pennant had broken a New York chokehold on the World Series – the three previous Fall Classics had pitted the Yankees against the New York Giants. But over in the National League, the Giants had won their fourth straight pennant and posed a daunting challenge even to Washington’s top-flight pitchers. New York’s everyday lineup was stacked with six future Hall-of-Famers: George Kelly, Frankie Frisch, Bill Terry, Travis Jackson, Ross Youngs and Hack Wilson.

When the Nats take on the Cubs starting Friday, they will likely start Scherzer, Strasburg and Gonzalez in the first three games. Starting pitching is crucial in a postseason series, as it was a century ago, so in 1924 the Senators led with their power trio in the World Series.

Alas, it didn’t go well, and Washington fell behind two games to one – with Zachary claiming the Senators’ sole victory, in game 2. Marberry started and lost game three, but that didn’t stop him from coming in as a reliever the next day, closing out a Washington victory to even the series at two games a piece.

The final three games would also fall to the Johnson-Zachary-Marberry troika.

In game 5, the Giants torched Johnson for 13 hits en route to a 6-4 win and Johnson’s second loss of the series. Zachary won the next day, 2-1, setting up a dramatic game 7 on a Sunday afternoon at Griffith Stadium in DC.

Leading 1-0 in the top of the fifth, Washington summoned Marberry from the bullpen in the middle of a Giants rally, with runners on first and third and nobody out.

Marberry, who was making his fourth appearance in seven days, gave up a game-tying sacrifice fly, but would have gotten out of the inning without further damage, had it not been for errors by Washington first baseman Joe Judge and shortstop Ossie Bluege. The Giants capitalized with two unearned runs and took a 3-1 lead.

The postseason often comes down to how a ball bounces, and the ball bounced Washington’s way in the bottom of the eighth. Harris, the Washington player-manager, hit a groundball to third, and the ball took a bad hop over Giants third baseman Freddie Lindstrom, sailing into left field. Two Senators came around to score, tying the game at 3-3. Fans erupted into pandemonium, throwing confetti, thousands of pieces of ripped-up newspapers, and even hats and coats onto the field. Wild cheers mixed in with the sounds of whistles, bells, and horns.

In the ninth inning, the Nats turned to their MVP, Walter Johnson, in hopes he could atone for his two losses. For a while, it looked like he might lose a third time, pitching in and out of trouble for four pressure-cooker innings. And the Nats weren’t going to let him off the hook – in the bottom of the 12th, with a runner on second, they let Johnson hit for himself, and he reached on an error. The baserunner, catcher Muddy Ruel, stayed on second. One batter later, Washington’s Earl McNeely hit a ground ball to third – and once again, it took a bad hop past Lindstrom. Ruel chugged home with the winning run at 5:04 p.m. without drawing a throw.

Washington Senators Muddy Ruel (left) and Walter Johnson (right).
Photo © Public Domain, Library of Congress

After the game, Johnson declared himself the “happiest man in the world.”

To this day, it remains the only time Washington has won a postseason baseball series. The Senators returned to the World Series the next year, but lost to the Pittsburgh Pirates, and in ’33, the Giants avenged their ’24 loss to Washington. And of course, the Nats have been bounced in the first round of the playoffs three times in five years – 2012, 2014 and last year.

The Nats are hoping to change all that this year, but even if they don’t, with four postseason appearances in 13 years, they have already eclipsed the number that the Senators managed in 71 years. True, for most of those years, there were no divisions and a team had to finish first in the league to make the postseason. But there are a lot more teams to compete against now.

In fact, with four division titles in six years, we could be witnessing the first glory period in Washington baseball history since the Senators claimed three pennants in one decade straddling the ‘20s and ‘30s. Whether that will include the city’s first World Series championship in nearly a century could hinge on whether the Nats’ three alpha pitchers are able to continue their dominance into the postseason.

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Frederic J. Frommer (Twitter: @ffrommer) is head of the Sports Business Practice at the Dewey Square Group, a public affairs firm, and author of "You Gotta Have Heart," a history of Washington baseball, from which some of this is story is based.