The 2019 Washington Nationals are a delight to behold. After starting the season 19-31 and 12 games behind the National League East division lead, the Nats got scorching hot and pulled off an improbable run that carried them to the NL Wild Card Game, behind the stellar play of the perennial underrated Anthony Rendon, the emerging superstar Juan Soto, and their electric starting pitching.
Finishing 93-69, Washington hosted and won the NL Wild Card Game after a three-RBI base hit by Soto in the eighth inning against Josh Hader and the Milwaukee Brewers. Moving on to the NL Division Series, Washington did the unthinkable, knocking off the 106-win Los Angeles Dodgers in an extra-innings Game 5 affair, thanks to a Howie Kendrick grand slam in the 10th frame.
Now, Washington sits just three wins away from clinching the first World Series championship in the history of the franchise, dating as far back as 1969 when the team played as the Montreal Expos. After dominating the St. Louis Cardinals in a 4-0 sweep of the NL Championship Series, a World Series title is now a realistic possibility, after the mere thought of it was nearly incomprehensible in the offseason.
This is the same team that lost the face of their franchise, Bryce Harper, to the division-rival Philadelphia Phillies in the winter. A team whose infamously unreliable bullpen blew 29 saves in the regular season. The club whose ace pitcher and future first ballot Hall of Famer Max Scherzer spent a lot of the summer on the injured list.
But it isn’t the first time Washington, D.C. has seen such an unlikely, magical run, especially not in recent memory. Watching the Nationals catch fire and roll through the postseason schedule, something they’ve had immense trouble with over the past decade, provokes memories of the 2018 Washington Capitals, the National Hockey League’s Stanley Cup champions.
The Capitals, throughout the era of star forward Alex Ovechkin — one of the greatest goal-scorers in NHL history — had a reputation of failing in the postseason. After the 2016-17 season (during which they lost in the playoffs again), the team lost some key contributors such as Kevin Shattenkirk, Marcus Johansson, and Karl Alzner due to free agency or trades necessitated by salary cap constraints.
The club started slow in the 2017-18 campaign, with a 5-6-1 record in October. Head coach Barry Trotz was on the hot seat, just like Nationals skipper Dave Martinez was in mid-May. Behind Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and Braden Holtby, the Capitals stormed back to the postseason by winning the Metropolitan division, bolstered by a December run in which the team went 10-2-2 and 8-0 at home.
They got off to a rough start in the postseason, dropping two home games to the Columbus Blue Jackets. The Nationals had a disastrous start to their 2019 playoff schedule too, going down 3-0 early in the Wild Card Game with Scherzer on the hill against the Brewers. However, each team displayed perseverance and came back strong, with the Capitals storming back and winning the series in six games.
Next, the Pittsburgh Penguins awaited them, a team that had won two straight Stanley Cups and had eliminated Washington in each of their championship conquests. It was supposed to be the end of the road, but the Capitals exorcised their demons with a 4-2 series win, later beating the Tampa Bay Lightning in seven games to advance to the Cup Final, where they dropped the Vegas Golden Knights in a five-game set.
Just like the Nationals now, the Capitals got some strong help from both their superstar athletes and the lesser-known role players. Ovechkin, their captain and face of the franchise, was awarded the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff Most Valuable Player, with 15 goals in the postseason. But guys like Lars Eller and Devante Smith-Pelly, who each had seven postseason goals, came up big in the most critical of moments.
Rendon (1.171 OPS in the NLCS), Scherzer (10 hits and three runs allowed in 20 innings since the NL Wild Card Game start), and Stephen Strasburg (0.71 ERA in the 2019 postseason) have all been unbelievably great but so have guys like Howie Kendrick (four extra-base hits and nine RBIs), Anibal Sanchez (7.2 no-hit innings in Game 1 of the NLCS), and Adam Eaton (three RBIs in the NLCS).
Who knows what the rest of the postseason schedule brings to the Nationals, but its eerie similarity to the script of the Capitals’ 2018 Stanley Cup run means Washington has seen something like this unfold before, and they can be confident in their underdog club no matter what. The Houston Astros are a powerhouse organization with talent unlike any other, but the Nats certainly have what it takes to lift the Commissioner’s Trophy.
But, at least to this point, the path has been the same as the magical Washington Capitals of 2017-18: lose homegrown talent in free agency, struggle mightily to begin the new campaign, hit a near-midseason stride, start the postseason off slow and worrisome, dominate the rest of the schedule thanks to both superstars and role players, and win the title.