WASHINGTON — For the Washington Nationals, the trick to winning so much this year was staying loose.
They went out of their way to celebrate every moment. They danced in the dugout. They clapped their hands together to do the “Baby Shark” whenever their team got a hit. They donned cheap pink- or yellow-tinted sunglasses, and their fans were more than happy to join their goofy party.
But then came Games 3, 4 and 5 of the World Series at Nationals Park, the first time the city hosted the Series in 86 years.
And in seeped the pressure.
“I’m wondering if we were pressing a little bit, just with the atmosphere that was here in Nats Park, how good the fans were,” pitcher Sean Doolittle said on Sunday night, after the Nationals lost their third game in a row to the Houston Astros. “Sometimes you really want to put an exclamation point on the situation to bring the crowd to their feet. I’m wondering if that played a role in it.”
Doolittle said he felt terrible that the team couldn’t deliver for the fans and that it’s frustrating and “it stinks.” But he and his Nationals don’t want their supporters to give up hope for a World Series title in Washington this year, as improbable a request as that may seem.
The Nationals came back from Houston for Game 3 ahead in the series, 2-0. They were on fire on the road, but smoldered at home. Now the Nationals must take the final two games in Houston, beginning Tuesday, to win the championship.
Sounds crazy to think that the Nationals could steal all four road games from the Astros — a feat that has never been accomplished. But they think it’s doable. All year, Washington has refused to fold despite a gantlet of serious setbacks.
“We feel good, everybody feels good,” outfielder Juan Soto said, regarding the games in Houston. “We’re just going back there to do what we did before.”
Soto makes it sound so easy. The first time around, it was.
The Nationals started the World Series on the road, scoring 17 runs in the first two games. Looking unstoppable, they came home to Washington — and their bats went cold. Hit after hit seemed magnetized toward Astros players’ gloves.
They scored only three runs in those next three games, a single run each night. In Game 3 on Friday, they left 12 men on base, with 10 in scoring position. In Game 4 on Saturday, Fernando Rodney gave up a grand slam to Astros third baseman Alex Bregman in the seventh inning.
Even after the Astros tied the series, 2-2, outfielder Adam Eaton said the Nationals were unfazed.
“I think it’s really easy to erase what’s happened the last two games,” he said after Game 4. “It’s what we’ve done all year — get punched in the face and then come back. We didn’t think they’d just fold over.”
In Game 5, the Nationals were sure they could swing the momentum their way, especially with Max Scherzer, one of the game’s best pitchers, starting.
“We’re not panicking,” Doolittle said, feeling confident in Scherzer and the scheduled Game 6 starter, Stephen Strasburg.
Until Scherzer was not up next. Less than four hours before Sunday’s game, the team learned that Scherzer could not pitch because of muscle spasms in his neck.
Already, catcher Kurt Suzuki, whose home run in Game 2 broke open the Nationals offense, was out with a hip injury. Joe Ross, not a regular in the rotation, was picked to pitch for Scherzer and did a fine job — just not a Scherzer-level job.
So what makes the Nationals think they can pull off two wins against the Astros now, when the pressure is at its greatest and Houston’s home fans will be the loudest? History. Consider how far the team has come in a season that, at first, didn’t appear promising at all.
Washington lost its longtime star slugger Bryce Harper before the season when he bolted to the Philadelphia Phillies for more money. Not long into the year, the Nationals looked as if they were about to implode, with a 19-31 record and Manager Dave Martinez seemingly halfway out the door.
Yet the Nationals grinded back, game by game, climbing from near-last in the N.L. East all the way to the wild-card game. And in that game, they looked doomed — until they weren’t. They were losing to Milwaukee, 3-1, in the eighth inning and were facing Josh Hader, one of baseball’s best closers. But Soto singled, and he changed everything. Three runs scored and the Nationals beat Milwaukee, 4-3.
In the division series against the Los Angeles Dodgers, 36-year-old Howie Kendrick hit a grand slam in the 10th inning of Game 5 to put the Nationals into the National League Championship Series. Doolittle recalled that the Nationals looked “dead in the water” before Kendrick’s huge hit.
So, despite the daunting task awaiting them in Houston, these Nationals have proven they can come from behind to win.
“It’s been a crazy year for us, so why not every road team win in the World Series?” first baseman Ryan Zimmerman said, adding, “You can’t go out there and pout about it.”
Don’t expect the team to hold meetings and give one another pep talks about the gravity of this situation. They’re too old for that, said Zimmerman, 35, referring to the many veterans on the team.
The average age of the players on the Nationals’ regular-season 40-man roster is 30.9 years old, making them the oldest team in the league.
“We’re all big boys who have been playing a long time,” Zimmerman said. “You’re not going to win every game. Sometimes things don’t go your way. Like I said, turn the page.”
Outfielder Adam Eaton agreed that nothing needed to be said at this point because “all the little grandpas in here know what’s going on.”
Those little grandpas and everyone else in the Nationals’ clubhouse are aware that their bats must start hitting runs in. Eaton said that the team had been hitting the balls hard and had good at-bats, and that it was exasperating that they had nothing to show for it.
Third baseman Anthony Rendon was sarcastic when trying to explain what the Nationals could do to change their fate.
He grabbed a bat from his locker and said, “See, we have these bats.”
The team knows its time is running out. Its patience and joy might be running out with it.
“We’re not ‘happy to be here’ and ‘see where the cards fall,’” Eaton said. “We want to win this thing. We’ve won two games in a row before this year and we’re looking to do it again.”