Is it really possible that this Nationals team, the one that just won five elimination games in which they trailed in each and every one, won a World Series after starting the season 19-31 and trailing our Phils by TEN GAMES in late May? Because it happened.
The Nationals did it with two things — outstanding starting pitching from a slew of veteran arms and clutch at-bats from an offense with a stout middle of the order and lots of greybeards everywhere else. And as one ruminates on just how Washington managed to pull this off, one can’t help but think of a former Phillies team that tried to follow the same formula, but failed.
The 2019 Nationals remind me an awful lot of the 2011 Phillies.
Like the Super Rotation of ‘11 (Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt), the Nats had a super rotation of their own. Max Scherzer is a three-time Cy Young Award winner and Stephen Strasburg is a former No. 1 overall pick who had a career year and has become one of the greatest postseason pitchers in MLB history. The Nats went 10-0 in their combined starts this postseason, something general manager Ruben Amaro had to think was going to happen when he lined up Halladay and Lee next to each other in the 2011 rotation.
But Washington also got a ton of help from their No. 3 starter Patrick Corbin, who bounced back and forth between the bullpen and rotation. Oddly, Corbin was more effective as a reliever than a starter (at least four earned runs allowed in two of his three starts), and No. 4 starter, Anibal Sanchez, was also productive, with a near no-hitter against the Cardinals in Game 1 of the NLCS.
Starting pitching carried them to their first ever title, the exact same plan the Phils had in mind in 2011.
As for the lineup, the Nats had a little more youth than the Phillies. Trea Turner is a young, emerging superstar and Juan Soto is among the two or three best hitters in baseball right now. At 26 and 21 years old, respectively, they’re going to be around for a long time. But they also had veterans who got the job done, like Adam Eaton and his .993 OPS in the World Series, and Anthony Rendon, who hit a home run in three straight winner-take-all games this year alone.
Howie Kendrick is 35. Ryan Zimmerman is 34. Their catchers, Yan Gomes and Kurt Suzuki, are 31 and 35. In 2011, Shane Victorino was 30, Ryan Howard was 31, Carlos Ruiz, Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins were 32, Placido Polanco was 35 and Raul Ibanez was 39. The only regular under 30 was Hunter Pence, a super-youthful 28.
In the rotation, Halladay was 34, Oswalt was 33, Lee was 32 and Hamels was 27. Their closer, Ryan Madson, was 30.
The Nationals were the oldest team in baseball this season with an average age of 31. In 2011, the Phillies’ average age was 29.8. Age before beauty, it seems.
Of course, having Soto and Turner is a big deal, and Rendon, should they re-sign him, would be entering his age-30 season in 2020. Scherzer is 34, Strasburg is 30. Corbin is 29. These are not spring chickens, and it’s fair to wonder if the window will close on this group the way it did the Phillies in 2012.
There are, of course, differences between the two teams. The Phils won 102 games in 2011 on their way to the best record in baseball. They were the prohibitive favorites to win it all at the start of the playoffs. The Nats, meanwhile, finished second in the NL East behind the Braves and had to win a one-game playoff against the Brewers to even make it to the Division Series. A game they almost lost.
Eventually, as huge underdogs, they faced a Los Angeles Dodgers team that won 106 games, 13 more than the 93-win Nationals. Meanwhile, the 102 win Phils had won 12 more games than their NLDS opponent, the 90-win Cardinals.
The biggest difference between the 2011 Phillies and the 2019 Nationals comes down to one game — Game 5 of their respective NLDS match-ups.
The Phils went up 2-1 in their series against the Cardinals, lost Game 4 and then came home for Game 5 with Halladay taking the mound against Chris Carpenter. In one of the most excruciating losses in team history, the Cardinals made a single, solitary first inning run stand up as Carpenter pitched a complete game shutout, 1-0, that ended the Phils’ dynasty and, in effect, ended Halladay’s career.
Conversely, the Nationals found themselves down 2-1 in their series, but rallied to win Game 4 at home and then, in Game 5 at Dodger Stadium, were down 3-1 in the 8th inning. Clayton Kershaw was on the mound. The season appeared over. Instead, the Nats overcame, with Rendon and Soto hitting back-to-back homers off of the greatest pitcher of his generation, and finished the job in extra innings thanks to a Howie Kendrick grand slam.
Simply put, the Nationals got the clutch hits the Phillies couldn’t. Had the Phils gotten past the Cardinals in the Division Series, it’s highly likely their pitching advantage would have been even more present in a seven-game series. Unfortunately, they didn’t win their Game 5.
Watching this Nationals team was like watching the ‘11 Phils through a bizarro mirror, and served as a bitter reminder of what could have been had Raul Ibanez’ fly ball landed in the galldang seats that awful night.
On Episode 332 of Hittin’ Season, I talked a bit more about this and spoke with Philadelphia Inquirer beat writer Matt Breen about the Fall Classic, the Phils new pitching coach, why Dante Bichette is a name to watch in the hitting coach search, and the Phillies’ upcoming off-season plans. Tune in!