One year ago today, things were very different for the Washington Nationals organization.
From the outside, there were calls for Dave Martinez and Mike Rizzo to be given their marching orders, media speculation was rife about which players could be sold off at the trade deadline, and there was even talk about tearing everything down and starting again.
Who could blame them? They were 10 games behind the Philadelphia Phillies in the National League East and you can count on one hand the number of teams who had even made the playoffs winning at most 19 games through a team’s first 50 games in a season.
Inside the organization though, there was still confidence that things would turn around.
“Things are going to change,” Martinez said on the day they dropped to 19-31. “We’ve just got to keep pounding away, keep playing baseball, there’s good players in that clubhouse, really good players, and we’ll turn things around.”
Admittedly, what else is he supposed to say as manager? That made it tough to believe, at the time, that it was anything more than hollow cliches from a man who needed to save his job. At that point in time though, he still had the backing from the front office.
“We’re not making any decisions like I said with a third of the season gone and we’ve got a lot of season left,” Rizzo stated before the team’s game against the Marlins on May 24th.
“We’re playing poorly. Believe me, I’m just like a lot of the fan base, a lot of the players, and the coaching staff and the manager, it’s hard to watch sometimes, but we’re certainly not going to pull the plug before we’re a third of the way through the season.
“We’re a big league club, we’ve got a talented big league roster, and we’ve got to play better baseball. That’s it.”
At 19-31, however, it was time for the Nationals to stop saying it’s too early and start playing like they knew they could before it was too late. No more woe is me, time for action.
So, uh, that’s exactly what they did...
Perhaps most importantly, they finally got healthy. Trea Turner, Anthony Rendon, and Juan Soto finally clicked into gear after shaking off the rust before the team hit the fateful 19-31.
Though the mood in the clubhouse wasn’t exactly upbeat at the time because of the mounting losses, there was still a quiet confidence among the group. Their manager wouldn’t let them get too down on themselves as his belief in the team stayed firm.
The wins finally started to come. Three out of four against the Marlins, a two-game sweep of the Atlanta Braves, two out of three against the Cincinnati Reds, a two-game sweep of the Chicago White Sox. Just like that, they were 28-33 and the numbers of games under .500 more than halved.
By the end of June, with a 42-41 record, the swagger started to creep back into the players.
The dugout dancing was only just gaining traction while Baby Shark was just another Gerardo Parra gimmick. Though the turnaround was well underway, nobody knew that folklore had been born.
Perhaps the team’s trademark at the All-Star Game approached was that they seemed to be competitive in every single game they played, battling until the last out. From June 16th through July 20th, the Nats were ahead or tied in the 7th inning in 27 straight games.
Everything the team desperately needed during its run to the World Series crown — the clubhouse chemistry, the clutch hitting, the dominant starting pitching, and the refusal to say die in any game — was on display in the dog days of summer.
“It didn’t just start like miraculously,” Martinez explained during the NLCS. “This has been something that’s been building since the end of May.
“I mean, we had our backs against the wall, and they stuck with it, and they believed in each other, and they believed that they were going to bounce back and this thing was going to turn around.
“I’ve said it before, we’ve been playing playoff games since then. We had to play really good to come back and do the things we’ve done, and now, in [October], they believed that they can do this, and they’re going out there, and they’re not taking anything for granted, and they’re playing really hard, and they’re playing to win one game every day.
“The big message, I say it every day, is to go 1-0 every day, and they believe that.”
The Nationals 1-0 mentality paid off in October. They faced five elimination games, they were behind in all five, and they won all five. They didn’t give up at 19-31, they weren’t giving up when their backs were against the wall on the biggest stages.
“As we all know and they learned, being 19-31 and doing what we did, it’s never over,” Martinez said in February. “You’ve got to compete every single day. Understand that. We’re going to go 1-0 every day. With that mentality, that’s what got us a world championship.”
It’s not often that a record 12 games under .500 will be remembered so fondly. But going from such a record to winning it all perfectly encapsulates the incredible resolve and determination that the 2019 Nationals displayed on their way to baseball’s peak.
Now, as the Nats prepare to reveal their World Series ring design at 7pm tonight, everybody associated with the franchise will remember the bumpy 19-31 road that really did lead to a beautiful place...