(ABC)–Not to suggest that it’s been a while since a team from Washington won a World Series. But …
The last time it happened — a mere 90 years ago — it gave that team from D.C. (Walter Johnson’s proud Washington Senators) as many World Series championships in franchise history as the Yankees had won, at the time (one). No kidding.
OK, so obviously, that changed. Along with a lot of other stuff — in life, in baseball and in our ever-harmonious nation’s capital. But while the Washington Senators won’t be participating when baseball’s postseason gets rolling Tuesday, a team from Washington will be participating. And that’s not all.
You see, that team from Washington — those deep, multi-talented 96-win Nationals — are going to win the World Series, and end a nine-decade title drought in their town that began in the Calvin Coolidge administration.
You can pretty much guarantee it …15 astute baseball executives, from clubs that didn’t make the postseason, were polled to see which teams they thought were about to play in the World Series, and which juggernaut they picked to win it. Here’s how they saw it:
National League Champ: Nationals (12 votes), Pirates (2), Dodgers (1)
American League Champ: Orioles (7), Angels (4), A’s (3), Tigers (1)
World Series winner: Nationals (11), Orioles (2), A’s (1), Dodgers (1)
That’s what you’d call overwhelming sentiment.
Over the last 90 games (during which they’ve gone a white-hot 59-31), the Nationals have the best record in the National League and tied the Angels and Orioles for the best record in baseball.
Only once since June 27, in a bizarre three-game sweep in Philadelphia, have these guys lost more than two games in a row, at any point, over a span of 83 games. And you’d be hard-pressed to figure out a real area of weakness on their team.
They lead the major leagues in ERA and starting-pitching ERA. They’re second in bullpen ERA. And their staff just finished reeling off the greatest single-season strikeout-to-walk ratio (3.66-1) in history.
Their offense ranks in the top four in the league in runs scored, home runs, on-base percentage and stolen-base success rate. And they’re 74-11 when they score four runs or more.
“There’s no question in my mind,” said one NL scout, “that they’re set up to go deeper than anyone else. And it’s not that complicated why. They’re just so talented.”
Yeah, but they’ve still got a lot of talented company in this field. So let’s take a look at the other “favorites” in this tournament, and break down why our panel saw the Nationals as the team to beat.
Why no Giants, Royals or Cardinals?
The Giants and Royals mostly got no love because they’re wild-card teams. And hardly anyone wants to risk picking a team to win it all and have their pick eliminated three hours into the postseason. The Pirates and A’s were the exceptions.
And why did no one pick the Cardinals, those perennial October magicians? Just not the same team they were a year ago. Or the year before that. Or the year before that. “They’ve got a lot of problems,” said one NL executive. “They’re not scoring runs. Their rotation, I think, is iffy after [Adam] Wainwright. Their bullpen is very inconsistent. They’re just a hard team to pick.”
What about the Pirates?
This polling was conducted before the season was over, and before the NL Central was decided. So it would have been interesting to see how many of these panelists would have picked the Pirates if they’d been headed for first place instead of for that dreaded wild-card survivor game.
“I’d change my pick [from Washington] to the Pirates if they win the division,” said one NL front-office man. “The Pirates are a better team than the Cardinals. They can really hit. And they’re fun to watch. It would be a true shame if Madison Bumgarner goes out, throws a great game to beat them and you’d say, ‘The best team might just have gotten bounced in one game.’ But that could happen.”
What about the Tigers?
They feel like a team built for October. And it wouldn’t shock anyone if they ousted the Orioles, started riding their stars and got on a roll. But it’s no mystery why so many baseball people polled were terrified of the Tigers.
“I just couldn’t pick them,” said one executive. “They’re so shaky defensively. And their bullpen is so bad. I just couldn’t pick them. They have [a core of] great players. But they’re not that good a team. If they had a decent bullpen, I’d look at them a lot different. But one thing I’ve learned about October is, it’s a long month. If you try to manage around your bullpen, you’re dead. And they pretty much have to.”
Why not the Dodgers?
It appeared for a while that nobody was going to pick the Dodgers. It took the next-to-last voter to get them on the board. Which is shocking, in a way, when you consider they’ve led the NL in runs scored since the All-Star break, they employ Clayton Kershaw and they’ve got almost a quarter-billion-dollar payroll. But …
“That team is such a mess,” said one NL executive. “They could beat you on pure talent. But they’re a total mess. As soon as I say that, though, you think, ‘In a five-game series, you’ll probably face Kershaw twice and [Zack] Greinke once.’ So good luck.”
Three voters picked the A’s?
So how, you ask, could three longtime baseball executives pick a team that had the worst record after the All-Star break (29-38) of any postseason qualifier in history? And how could anyone pick a club that just finished doing a mean ’69 Cubs imitation, by plummeting 14 games in the standings just in the last 45 games? Because in October, the past gets irrelevant fast. That’s how.
“Say you’re the Angels and you’re facing Oakland in a five-game series,” said the same executive quoted above. “You basically lose the pitching matchup in every game. Now you’re Oakland, you win that five-game series, you get your confidence back, and everything’s different. … So if you told me the A’s would win the one-game playoff and end up in the ALCS, it wouldn’t surprise me.”
Can the Angels win?
Four voters think the Angels will get to the World Series. So obviously, they can, because “they WILL score runs,” said another exec. “That offense is so strong.” But it’s their rotation, beyond Jered Weaver, that scares everyone right now.
“They’re just that rare team,” said the exec quoted earlier, “that’s going to win almost 100 games and still lose the pitching matchup in every game they play.”
Beware the Orioles
Until this survey, it was thought the popular wisdom was that the Orioles weren’t built for October. Then they ran away with the AL balloting. Who knew?
“The X factor in all of this,” said one scout, “is Buck [Showalter]. There’s a certain level of magic going on with this guy that I haven’t seen in a while. He’s so prepared with matchups and with his thought process, he always seems like he’s ahead of the game. It makes me think this might be Baltimore’s year.”
When people describe the Orioles’ rotation as “a bunch of six-inning pitchers,” your first instinct is to say that’s bad. But in this team’s case, it’s the opposite, because the bullpen is so deep and devastating, everyone expects Showalter to “La Russa” his way through October, going to his pen the moment he senses trouble.
“To be honest, if you could do that for a whole season, it would be incredible,” said one exec. “Other than your aces, you really don’t want your starting pitcher facing any lineup three times. And you know that’s how Buck will handle this. … In October, you can really shorten the game. And that’s just what they’ll do.”
Even without Chris Davis, Manny Machado and Matt Wieters, this lineup can score. The Orioles hit 56 more home runs than any other playoff team. And they don’t need to score eight to win. Since the end of June, they’re an amazing 43-3 when they put up four runs or more. But home runs can disappear in October, when the best arms and the best info begin to minimize the mistakes that land in the upper deck during the season. And that’s a worry for this team.
“They’re going to have to hit home runs to score,” said one scout. “And they have more holes offensively than you’d think. So can they hit those home runs against a [Max] Scherzer and a [Justin] Verlander and a [David] Price? I don’t know. But they’re going to have to.”
The Wash cycle
But for all the kind words the panelists found to bestow on other teams, it was the Nationals who monopolized the lovefest in this survey.
“They have so many ways to win,” said one GM.
“They’re the most complete team,” said another NL exec.
“They can be a good team in a short series, long series, or one game with all the marbles on the table,” said another.
They’ll have a potentially dominating starter on the mound every game of this postseason. They can score in all sorts of ways. They “play as if they are the most prepared team on the field,” said one exec. And think about how deep they are compared to most teams. So deep there’s no place in their lineup for Ryan Zimmerman. So deep there’s no place in their October rotation for a starter with the seventh-best WHIP in the league (Tanner Roark). And that depth, said one exec, “is why I like them so much.”
Nevertheless, the Nationals come into this Octoberfest with a couple of intriguing storylines swirling:
The Strasburg effect
The memories of their untimely demise in the 2012 NLDS hang over the Nationals in many ways. But who knows how that will affect the guy who wasn’t allowed to pitch in that series, because he’d been shut down for the year: Stephen Strasburg.
On one hand, he comes in on his best, most untouchable roll of the season (20 shutout innings over his last three starts). On the other, it’s fascinating how many people in the game think Jordan Zimmermann deserves to be the Game 1 starter.
“There’s something missing there, for me,” said one NL scout of Strasburg. “A true No. 1 is out there to beat your butt and dominate you. I’m not sure he has that side to his personality. … But now is the time to elevate. If he does, we’ll all be back on board. But we’re going to find out a whole lot more about him in the next month.”
Who gets the last three outs?
Amazing how the world can spin. Two Octobers ago, it was Drew Storen on the mound in the ninth inning of NLDS Game 5, as an epic four-run ninth by the Cardinals blew up the Nationals’ season. Storen then lost his job to Rafael Soriano, and even wound up back in Triple-A last season. And then …
Poetically, it was the same Drew Storen whom this team turned to this month when Soriano imploded. And Storen enters this tournament with a 1.12 ERA, working on a magical run of 23 consecutive appearances without allowing an earned run.
“Storen is really starting to get his feet under him as the closer,” said one scout. “His delivery is better now. He’s not jumping the way he was. He’s more under control. Now everything’s smooth, and working together. He’s made his fastball better by developing his changeup. He’s in a lot better place now than he was two years ago.”
Oh, there’s more, of course. Does it matter that the Nationals have a first-time manager in Matt Williams, who did at least play in three World Series? There will be the game-to-game fascination with how they pick spots to get Zimmerman to the plate. Life is never dull with Bryce Harper on the field. And this will be the first chance for their best player this year, Anthony Rendon, to show off his special skills and instincts on the October stage.
In the end, the panel decided that the first Baltimore-Washington World Series looms. Does the victor get to win the MASN lawsuit? Its own personal traffic-free lane on the Beltway? We’re about to find out.