HOUSTON — Having watched them beat the Astros twice at Minute Maid Park to totally negate home-field advantage, hand Gerrit Cole his first loss in five months on Tuesday night, and send half the crowd home early with a 12-3 rout on Wednesday, a person might start to wonder what sort of magic the Nationals have cooking in their clubhouse these days.
Not that they need it, of course. This is a great team and previous iterations' inability to win a postseason series is better as a narrative device than meaningful predictive force. Maybe the oddsmakers who heavily favored the Astros at the start of the series got suckered by the Nationals’ slow start to the season, because for the past five months they kept pace (quite literally tied for the most wins in baseball since June 1) with the team that spent media day answering questions about what it would mean to win two championships in three years.
So it’s not that the Nats would need anything supernatural to get to this place where they’re heading home to play Washington’s first World Series game in nearly 90 years with a chance to clinch the whole thing that same weekend. But it really is an incredible run they are on right now. Game 2 of the World Series was their eighth straight victory, six of which were on the road, across four cities. They haven’t lost since Oct. 6. Maybe they just forgot how to lose. But baseball teams are prone to superstitions, at least as a failsafe, and the Nats in particular have relied on repetitive action already this year to replicate outcomes. I had to ask.
“We’re not making live sacrifices or doing anything like that,” says relief pitcher Sean Doolittle. His team’s robust lead Wednesday night, plus the travel day, will give Doolittle and Daniel Hudson two days to rest, which will go a long way toward explaining how a team with only two bullpen arms it really trusts in high-leverage situations can survive the gauntlet of a seven-game series in October. A sweep helps too.
Doolittle has his own, slightly unfortunate routine that he’s fallen into this postseason of eating at Bethesda Bagels in D.C. (“It’s pretty good, not quite as good as New York but good for D.C.”), and not washing his T-shirts.
“I hope we can wrap this thing up soon so I don’t smell too bad,” he says. But that’s amateur hour when it comes to athlete rituals. A streak like this takes stronger stuff. The problem, it seems, is going to be getting someone to tell me about it.
“I’m not going to tell you that. Why? I don’t know, it’s like husband and wife. You don’t talk about your business outside the house,” says outfielder Adam Eaton, whose first postseason home run pushed the Nats into double digits in Game 2.
What about the tinted sunglasses Gerardo Parra and Aníbal Sánchez have been wearing around the dugout — even at night, even inside?
“Can’t talk about that either,” Eaton insists.
That part is not a total secret. Doolittle explains that they debuted the sunglasses during a June series in Detroit, just as the team was starting to right the ship and gain a new lease on the season.
“They just had them on one day when they came to the field,” he says. “And [Fernando] Rodney had a boombox, it was a day game, and they were blasting music. I’m not a morning person, and I was like, what is going on? Is this a thing? And we won that day and it kind of just continued after that.”
Either way, that’s old news by now. What about the navy shirt alternate uniforms — is there anything to the fact that the team has gone 9-0 this month while wearing them? Can we talk about whether anyone is superstitious about that?
“No,” says Eaton, who should spend his eventual retirement working with classified information for intelligence agencies. “You guys want all of our secrets! I mean, I know that’s your job.”
“I’ve been saying for a long time it’s my favorite uniform,” says Trea Turner, whose leadoff walk ended up being the first of the Nationals’ dozen runs. “But it doesn’t mean we’re going to win or lose in it.”
OK, how about this: It doesn’t explain the previous sweep and their weekslong postseason success, but Juan Soto has an OPS up around 2.000 so far in the lopsided World Series since debuting a flashy gold shin guard (to go with his flashy batting stance dance). Is that anything?
“Not at all,” he says. “It’s just another shin guard.” But he does hint the team has been celebrating his impending 21st birthday all week as part of their postgame clubhouse routine, and whatever entails, even if it’s not live sacrifices, seems to be key. To the camaraderie, first and foremost, the fun that they have together, and also, maybe, some top-secret traditions?
This is absolutely, without a doubt our new favorite home run celebration. pic.twitter.com/hao2TC0T4K— Cut4 (@Cut4) October 24, 2019
Asked how exactly the “goofiness you see on the field” manifests internally into a motivating force or something as specific as history-making magic, Turner demurs. “Celebrations that we do after the game — that’s staying in here for the most part, that I can’t talk about.”
I’m starting to think there’s nothing to be found. This was, after all, a stab in the dark for something beyond any one hit or even heroic pitching performance to hold up as emblematic of the kind of culture that allowed a team many considered down and out to be on the cusp of popping champagne for the fourth and final time this month.
So I give up, or at least, I go back to the basics. Are there even some superstitions they’re not telling me about?
“Well of course, it’s baseball,” Eaton says with a smirk. “But I don’t know how you expect me to tell you about anything inside here. This is such a sacred place.”
“Personally I’m not superstitious at all,” says Anthony Rendon, whose first-inning double gave the Nats an early lead they never fully surrendered, and it seems like a dead end. Ask him what if anything they did, then, to change the juju around the team and he looks a little bit bit more knowing, a little less likely to talk.
“There was a couple moments, but that’s only for the clubhouse,” he says. “Maybe in 20 years someone will write a book but we’re not going to say anything now.”
Dibs on the book, I say.
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