For the Washington Nationals, a long playoff break is a blessing and a curse
Heading towards their first World Series in franchise history, the Washington Nationals have the most powerful force in postseason baseball perched on their shoulder ... and its biggest antidote breathing down their neck.
Momentum is a magical factor when October rolls around. Momentum is king. Momentum can allow a team that started the season 19-31 to take down an opponent that won 106 games.
That antidote to such a red-hot team, though? It’s not, modern history suggests, lights-out pitching or an equally rampant rival or even bad luck.
After seeing off those 106-win Los Angeles Dodgers with a dramatic Game 5 comeback in the National League Division Series, the Nationals obliterated the St. Louis Cardinals, sweeping them in four straight games by a combined score of 20-6.
The NLCS wrapped up on Tuesday, and while the D.C. area has been gleefully preparing for its first World Series appearance since the Washington Senators in 1933 (which is a different franchise altogether, having moved to Minnesota and becoming the Twins in 1961), the Nationals have had to find ways to fill their spare time. In a sport that never truly ceases, it would seem like a welcome respite.
“We’re going to enjoy this a lot tonight; probably tomorrow as well,” veteran Ryan Zimmerman told reporters after seeing off the Cardinals. “And then we’re on to the next.”
By the time the opening pitch of the Fall Classic is thrown on Oct. 22, the Nationals will have been sitting around for six days. That idle time isn’t necessarily a good thing: since 1994, teams with six or more days of rest are 6-7 in the World Series and 0-4 since the advent of two Wild Card teams in each league.
Even if the Astros continue on their merry way and clinch the American League Championship Series in five games on Friday, the Nationals will have had three more days to chill and regroup (or, in Max Scherzer’s case, hang out at a Washington Capitals NHL game) than the Texan club.
On its surface, more rest is no advantage, according to the data. Since MLB’s realignment in 1994, the more heavily-rested World Series team is 12-12. Since the Wild Card play-in game was added in 2012, rest has served as a true detriment. Out of seven World Series champions since, only last season’s Boston Red Sox claimed the trophy after having had a longer break than their opponent.
For whatever reason, recent convention has looked unfavorably against the most rested World Series participants, time and again.
“That’s the bad news for the Nationals, riding all this crazy momentum,” wrote Mike Lupica on MLB.com. “They wait and keep waiting until the series between the Astros and Yankees is over. And while they wait, they hope that when they start playing again, at either Minute Maid Park or at Yankee Stadium, that they won’t have suffered from the Curse of the Tigers. Which might be a thing.”
Lupica was referring to the 2006 and 2012 Detroit Tigers, both seemingly unstoppable forces that swept the championship series and then got stale. Tigers had six days to ruminate in 2012 and got stung in the World Series. So too did the Kansas City Royals, New York Mets and Cleveland Indians, the World Series losers from 2014 to 2016, who all had six days off as well.
The last team to win the Series after exactly six days of rest was the 2005 Chicago White Sox, who beat the Astros. The last time a team won with either six or more spare days was the Philadelphia Phillies in 2008, who had a full week off before beating the Tampa Bay Rays.
Washington was the ninth team to sweep an LCS since the format expanded to seven games in 1985. Only once has the sweeper gone on to win the World Series — the Atlanta Braves in 1995, courtesy of the mercurial arms of Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz.
Yet if the Nationals look more to practicalities than statistical quirks, they will find some solace. The layoff allows for a complete reset for a rotation that has turned into a postseason monster.
“We’re going to stay locked in,” outfielder Adam Eaton told 106.7 The Fan. “We’re going to make sure we get our time off, get our guys in line. We got an older group. The older guys don’t recover nearly as fast as some of the young bucks do, so we are going to take this time and use it to our advantage.”
Pitching studs Stephen Strasburg, Scherzer and Patrick Corbin all worked in relief over the past two series, while Anibal Sanchez is 35. Scherzer is likely to pitch Game One of the Series.
If it is indeed Houston that emerges with the American League pennant, it would set up one of the greatest pitching showdowns in World Series history, given the Astros’ triple-headed juggernaut of Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole and Zack Greinke.
That expensively-assembled Houston trio sure looks unstoppable, especially the way the Astros have silenced Yankee Stadium over the last few days. But if there’s one team that has no reason to fear anyone right now, it’s the Nationals. Having lost Bryce Harper and started the season abysmally, they’ve essentially been on a roll ever since.
“We had a choice,” Zimmerman added, referencing the 19-31 start. “We could either roll over and quit or come in and try and win the game each day. We chose the second one.”
Postseason momentum is one thing, but the Nationals are riding a wave that they caught back in June and have glided atop ever since. If that’s not enough to outweigh the supposed curse of the rested, maybe nothing is.