The Washington Nationals’ road to triumph was a unique, resilient, and captivating compilation of baseball. They exorcised recurring playoff heartbreak and did so by coming back late in games and series.
It’s the second time this year that we’ve seen a team in professional sports overcome adversity and finally break through to win a championship. This fall it was the Nationals. Back in the spring it was the NBA’s Toronto Raptors.
From 2014-18, the Raptors, a perennial threat to win the Eastern Conference and the NBA Finals, continually ran into a wall in the postseason. They never escaped the conference and simply couldn’t win the big series. Sometimes that wall was LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, sometimes it was the Washington Wizards, and sometimes it was the Brooklyn Nets.
Throughout it all, they had some great teams headlined by the likes of the potent backcourt duo of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, as well as big men Jonas Valanciunas and Serge Ibaka. Then president Masai Ujiri made some bold decisions after the 2018 playoffs, the first being firing head coach Dwane Casey and promoting assistant Nick Nurse.
The other? Trading DeRozan, Raptors royalty, to the San Antonio Spurs for Kawhi Leonard. The move was heavily scrutinized, as DeRozan was beloved by the fan base, and Leonard wasn’t expected to re-sign with them in his upcoming free agency. Ujiri did it anyway.
Led by Leonard, the Raptors finished the regular as the two seed in the Eastern Conference at 58-24. However, they fell back into their old habits in the first round of the playoffs, losing Game 1 to the Orlando Magic, who were viewed as the far inferior team. But the Raptors didn’t cave, winning the next four games with conviction to win the series.
In the second round they faced off against the Philadelphia 76ers and went down 2-1 in the series. Rather than panicking and/or turning on each other, the Raptors stay composed, evened up the series, and got the series to a Game 7. How’d that go? Well, this video sums it up.
Leonard’s buzzer beater was perhaps the greatest moment in franchise history, at the time at least. It was on to the Eastern Conference Finals where they faced off against the Milwaukee Bucks, led by Giannis Antetokounmpo. Games 1 and 2 were a nightmare for Toronto. They were outscored by 30, their offense was erratic, and they were run out of the building. Then they did the unthinkable: win the next four games of the series.
They did it. The Raptors won the East, and now they got to face the defending NBA-champion Golden State Warriors for all the marbles. Sure, Kevin Durant missing most of the series with an Achilles injury and Klay Thompson tearing his ACL in Game 6 played a role, but the Raptors won their first-ever NBA championship, and no one can take that away from them.
In the offseason they lost Leonard to the Los Angeles Clippers and Danny Green to the Los Angeles Lakers, but it was all worth it. They took some chances in hopes of different results, lived in the moment, and showcased resiliency in the postseason to win an NBA title. That’s what it’s all about.
The Nationals mirror this story.
They were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs four times from 2012-17. Throughout it all they had elite and hallmark organizational players such as Max Scherzer, Bryce Harper, Anthony Rendon, Stephen Strasburg, Jayson Werth, Ryan Zimmerman, Ian Desmond, and plenty of others.
But after winning the National League East in back-to-back seasons (2016 and 2017), they opted to make another managerial change, going from Dusty Baker to Dave Martinez, and they missed the playoffs in 2018. Then they lost Harper in free agency to the Philadelphia Phillies. However, Washington didn’t ask for sympathy. They retooled and made themselves a potent foe, most notably by signing Patrick Corbin.
But matters were off the rails 50 games into the season. The Nationals were 19-31, their offense was faltering, and they owned one of the worst bullpens in Major League Baseball. Some were pushing for them to fire Martinez and trade Scherzer and Rendon. They refused. They stayed positive, trusted their talent, kept grinding, and played their way into the top NL Wild Card seeding.
They trailed the Milwaukee Brewers 3-1 in the eighth inning of the NL Wild Card Game. They trailed the Los Angeles Dodgers, who won a franchise-best 106 games in the regular season, 2-1 in the NLDS and 3-1 in the eighth inning of Game 5. They trailed the Houston Astros, who won an MLB-best 107 games in the regular season, 3-2 going back to Houston.
The Nationals overcame it all.
They finally got through the NL Division Series, which looked something like this:
Then they swept the St. Louis Cardinals in the NL Championship Series and beat the two supposed best teams in Major League Baseball (Astros and Dodgers), and won their last eight road games.
This offseason general manager Mike Rizzo has a lot of pivotal decisions to make with Rendon and Strasburg, as well as the bulk of their infielders and reliever Daniel Hudson hitting the open market. In all likelihood, they’re going to lose a lot of players who played paramount roles in their World Series run.
But again, this is what you work and play for. The Nationals made some changes but stuck with a lot of core veterans and youngsters and came out victorious.
Heartbreak, frustration, and mockery highlight the emotions of the Raptors and Nationals this decade. Same old Raptors, same old Nationals. Can’t get through their respective league, no matter the players they bring in.
They never gave up. Sure, they made some risky decisions, but those that take big chances to win get rewarded. And the Raptors and Nationals have something they can cherish for ages, regardless of what happens in the near future: a championship.