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The Nationals Wouldn’t Say Die

One of MLB history’s most improbable championship runs ended Wednesday night the only way it could — with an indestructible, indomitable Washington Nationals squad celebrating on the road after its World Series-clinching 6-2 victory over the Houston Astros in Game 7.

It was Washington’s fourth win in Houston during the Fall Classic, making the Nats the first major men’s pro team to win four road games in any best-of-seven playoff series. And that only scratches the surface of just how remarkable the Nats’ run has been. At almost every stage of the season and playoffs, they had to grind against ridiculously long odds. Few champions ever fought harder for their title than this Nationals ballclub did.

We’ve written before about Washington’s early-season struggles, but it’s impossible to overstate how resilient the team was in digging out of a 19-31 hole in the standings on May 23. The Nats were 12 games below .500 — the second-deepest pit any World Series winner has ever climbed out of, trailing only the 1914 Boston Braves (who went 12-28 to start their championship season):

The Nats were one of the most resilient champs ever

Most games below .500 for eventual World Series champions at their low point during the regular season, 1903-2019

Low Point (Most Games Below .500)
Season Team Date Wins Losses Vs .500
1914 Boston Braves June 8 12 28 -16
2019 Washington Nationals May 23 19 31 -12
2003 Florida Marlins May 22 19 29 -10
2002 Anaheim Angels Apr. 23 6 14 -8
1935 Detroit Tigers Apr. 27 2 9 -7
1991 Minnesota Twins Apr. 20 2 9 -7
1977 New York Yankees Apr. 19 2 8 -6
1979 Pittsburgh Pirates May 15 12 18 -6

The 1979 Pirates were six games under .500 twice, but the latest point was on May 15.

Source: Retrosheet

Washington also faced multiple moments of crisis in the playoffs. Perhaps the most memorable came in the Nationals’ very first game of the postseason, trailing late in the wild-card contest (with a mere 13 percent chance of winning, according to The Baseball Gauge) until Juan Soto’s single — and an ill-timed error by right fielder Trent Grisham — helped propel them past the Milwaukee Brewers and into the NL Division Series. Once there, the Nats faced an 11 percent chance of winning the series at their low point in Game 5 before once again coming up huge against Clayton Kershaw and the Dodgers to advance.

An NLCS sweep of the St. Louis Cardinals went more smoothly, with Washington’s series win probability never dropping below 50 percent after the opening few innings of Game 1. But the Nats made up for that with one of the most back-and-forth World Series seesaws in history.

Despite going in as one of the heaviest betting underdogs in World Series history, the Nats stunned the Astros at first. At their initial high point in the first inning of Game 3, Washington had a 2-0 Series lead and was at home for the next three games — which gave it an 83 percent chance of taking home the first championship in franchise history. But things could never be that easy. As the Series unraveled over the next three games in D.C., the Nats’ championship win probability fell to a mere 22 percent by the end of Game 5.

The last of that trio of games was perhaps the most crushing, as presumptive starter Max Scherzer was scratched late because of neck spasms, leaving Joe Ross on the hill instead. Our Elo pitcher ratings thought the drop-off from Scherzer to Ross caused the Nats’ probability of winning the game to fall by 8 percentage points, a big swing as far as starters go. And things got even worse in the initial stages of Game 6, with Washington falling behind 2-1 early. Midway through the do-or-die road contest, the Nats’ chances of winning the World Series were down to 14 percent.

But this team specialized in high-pressure comebacks — and in playing its best with the season on the line. So it should have been no surprise to see Washington storm back to win Game 6, then rally from down 2-0 (and another 13 percent World Series win probability) in the sixth inning of Game 7. All the Nats did this postseason was orchestrate clutch comebacks.

Washington fought from far behind at (almost) every turn

Lowest series win probability by playoff round for World Series champions, 1995-2019

Lowest Series Win Prob. By Round
Season Champion wild LDS LCS WS
2019 Washington Nationals 13% 11% 48% 13%
2018 Boston Red Sox 46 28 50
2017 Houston Astros 50 26 22
2016 Chicago Cubs 50 28 9
2015 Kansas City Royals 1 50 38
2014 San Francisco Giants 41 47 46 18
2013 Boston Red Sox 41 19 24
2012 San Francisco Giants 7 8 50
2011 St. Louis Cardinals 14 34 2
2010 San Francisco Giants 28 45 44
2009 New York Yankees 44 52 29
2008 Philadelphia Phillies 52 41 48
2007 Boston Red Sox 50 12 52
2006 St. Louis Cardinals 48 24 45
2005 Chicago White Sox 51 32 50
2004 Boston Red Sox 47 2 46
2003 Florida Marlins 19 2 23
2002 Anaheim Angels 21 34 2
2001 Arizona Diamondbacks 34 47 19
2000 New York Yankees 27 27 38
1999 New York Yankees 50 41 40
1998 New York Yankees 50 30 38
1997 Florida Marlins 38 42 12
1996 New York Yankees 17 37 14
1995 Atlanta Braves 42 38 48

MLB introduced the Division Series for the 1995 season and the wild-card game in 2012.

Source: The Baseball Gauge

Including World Series Game 7, the Nationals went 5-0 in elimination games this postseason — and all of them were come-from-behind victories. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Washington is the first team in MLB history with five comeback wins when facing elimination in a single postseason. And that doesn’t even get into the caliber of teams the Nats had to go through, including the 107-win Astros (with their ridiculously stacked pitching staff) and the 106-win Dodgers. They battled — and beat — the likes of Kershaw, Walker Buehler, Miles Mikolas, Gerrit Cole, Justin Verlander and even Zach Greinke (who was rolling Wednesday night) along the way.

Add it all up, and we just witnessed one of the most improbable postseason runs in baseball history by one of the most entertaining teams in recent memory. In a season of supercharged megateams, the eventual champion was the one nobody saw coming — the team that simply couldn’t be killed, no matter how high the odds were stacked against it.

Neil Paine was the acting sports editor at FiveThirtyEight.