Editor's note: I have only written a handful of sports stories and columns in my journalism career, but with the possibility of a Nationals/Astros World Series looming, I felt compelled to weigh in here. Skip if you'd like, but take a look at this photo I got following the Nationals Wild Card win two weeks ago. Its title: Catharsis.)
Two years ago, I went to see the Nationals at spring training with a good friend. The Nats' new facility was just opening and, better yet, they shared it with the Houston Astros, the team that turned me into a baseball fan.
Growing up in Houston, I'm a National League guy, and found it somewhat disconcerting when the Astros switched leagues almost a decade ago. That was when their teardown was imminent, and I suffered through the losses with many of my Texas friends and family. Becoming a fan of the National League's Nats was easy, given they local and starting to become a perennial playoff contender as my wife's interest in all things baseball emerged.
In 2017, the Astros and Nationals were slated to square off on the last day we were at spring training. Both teams were expected to do well, and some in the stands questioned if they would eventually meet in the biggest games of all.
I sat there in my Nationals hat and Astros shirt, hoping for that scenario and secretly dreading that it actually could happen. The exhibition game between the two squads finished in a 9-9 tie, which represented — for me at least — the best of both worlds.
The season, however, could not have gone more differently for the two teams. The Astros, the team I'd seen lose so many times in heartbreaking fashion, went on a magical run led by the trade deadline acquisition of Justin Verlander. In the ensuing weeks, as the region began to pick up the pieces from Hurricane Harvey, the Astros beat the Red Sox, Yankees and Dodgers in the playoffs to win the city's first-ever World Series title.
The Nationals, a veteran club that never lacked characters but somehow lacked personality, ran through the regular season without a glitch, only to lose yet again in the NLDS in what previously could have been termed "Astros-esque" fashion. Dusty Baker's contract was not renewed as the manager. Jason Werth got old and retired. The next year, Bryce Harper, the supposed star of the franchise, ditched the team for Philadelphia.
Last season was a disappointment for both teams. The Astros won more than 100 games, but were defeated by the Red Sox juggernaut. The Nationals struggled out of the gate and never found their footing.
The same scenario played out for the first two months of this season. In late May, around the time the Metro closed, making it more challenging for us to get to games easily, the Nationals were 19-31. Between the team and the transportation, Jill and I were pleased we had downgraded from a half season to a quarter season. (At least my free subscription to MLB.TV, a perk of having a quarter season or more, meant I could easily follow the Astros, who again were on a pace to win 100 games.)
We know what happened from there. The Astros easily won their division and added a dominant pitcher again at the trade deadline. They maneuvered past a stubborn Tampa Bay team in the ALDS and now are engaged in an epic battle with the Yankees to go to their second World Series in three years.
Meanwhile, somehow, some way, baby sharks and conga lines formed and the Nationals started winning. The starting pitchers were dominant, led by Max Scherzer but especially thanks to Stephen Strasburg, the introvert found himself dancing and hugging his teammates as he went on to have his best season. Juan Soto and Victor Robles made Harper's divadom easy to forget, and Anthony Rendon — a Houston native — parked the free agency Brinks truck outside the stadium to cash in on his MVP-quality year.
Even though they couldn't catch the Braves, they took hold of the Wild Card lead and never let go, winning the final eight games of the season — including a glorious five-game sweep of Harper's Phillies. In the Wild Card game, they defeated the Brewers in what is the most thrilling sporting event I've ever witnessed, then came back to defeat the Dodgers in the NLDS, advancing to the championship series for the first time.
Last night, the Nationals finished a sweep of the Cardinals, coming out of the gate with seven runs in the bottom of the first. The Astros-Nationals-Oilers fan in me cautioned that it was not going to be easy, having seen my teams rush out to big leads only to have their hopes crushed in the end.
But this Nationals team is, well, different. In many ways, the momentum they have reminds me of the 2017 Astros, who are two games away from the matchup I've always wanted and dreaded. They also remind me of the 2005 Astros, whose magical run included a similar comeback that ended with a sweep by the Chicago White Sox in that World Series.
Who knows what will happen? Will the end result be like 2005 or 2017, or something in between? Will the Yankees make it all moot?
Questions like that, my friends, are what makes baseball such an interesting journey. For several months each year, you never truly know from day to day and night to night what will take place.
Off we go!