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While My Heart Is A Notorious Liar, It May Be Right This Time

It’s starting to get real, folks.

Last night’s 12-3 win in Game 2 of the World Series now puts us right on the line between “don’t get too excited because there are a lot more games to go” and “we just stomped them in their own park twice and are going to sweep the Astros at Nats Park this weekend.”

Common sense says stick with the former. My heart says don’t listen to your brain, the latter is going to happen. It's just a matter of when, not if.

My heart, of course, is a notorious liar if you look at its body of work throughout my life. So I’m a little afraid to follow its lead.

But it feels so right.

I will acknowledge I was scarred as a child about all this. I grew up a St. Louis Cardinal fan, because back then there were only 3 channels, the major league game of the week on NBC only showed one game on a Saturday, and it was the team that was playing the best. The Cardinals won the World Series in 1967 over the Boston Red Sox, so in 1968, they were on just about every week.

The Cardinals carried a 3-1 lead in the series into Game 5, and led at one point in the game 3-2. Back then, when we would also walk to school 5 miles in the snow, uphill, both ways, your teacher in junior high would turn on the game for the class to watch, as all games were played during the day.

I wasn’t particularly bothered when Al Kaline singled for what would be the winning runs in the 7th inning of game 5. But I was bothered when the Cards lost the next one 13-1. I then watched in horror when Curt Flood misplayed a routine fly ball in game 7 for the winning runs as Detroit completed the comeback.

But the 2019 Nationals, my heart points out, are not your father’s baseball team. They haven’t followed any rhyme or reason that would appear related to conventional wisdom this season. National media have pounded the 19-31 start to the point of obsession, but the simple truth is the team was not very good in spring training, they were not very good at the beginning of the season, and at times up until the middle of September, they showed flashes of not being all that good then as well.

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If You Got Up Early And Went To Work This AM, I Tip My Hat To You

They say what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

Based on that, the Washington Nationals made a lot of us like the Incredible Hulk last night in Game 1 of the World Series.

Pressure certainly makes games fun, as it is the uncertainty of how it’s all going to end that makes everything interesting. But at some point the Nationals crossed from pressure to paralyzing fear in the late innings before holding on to a 5-4 win in Game 1.

Proving it was the gift that kept giving, sleep for the first hour or two was impossible after the final pitch. I guess clenching every muscle in your body and not exhaling for an hour will do that.

If you got up early and went to work this morning, I tip my hat to you.

The early part of the game when the team fell behind 2-0 was surprisingly not bothersome for me. I have watched sports for over 50 years, and every now and then you see a team like the Nationals. They become a different group late in the season, they win a couple of games they shouldn’t, and that starts becoming the rule instead of the exception.

Observers like the Fox broadcast crew, who provoked me several times into thinking “have they even watched the Nats this season?” don’t get that. They will look at a snapshot of the team at some point during the regular season, and don’t understand that the team in May, July or even the first of September is not the same team that the Nats are now.

This team shakes off adversity. The old players know things will change. The young players are probably too young to worry about it. So when it was 2-0, I felt strongly this team was going to score at least 5 runs before the 7th inning, because they have for the last two weeks. The team that would watch a starter pitch a gem while only getting 2 hits and not scoring any runs has turned into Elvis, and left the building.

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It's Time To Let Go Of All This Bryce Harper Bashing

Am finally getting around to reading the Jayson Stark story in the Athletic on Bryce Harper and his reaction to the Nationals making the World Series without him.

First of all, it’s a good story by Stark and it is a story that someone had to write, so I understand why Jayson wrote it in the first place.

But it’s a deeply flawed premise, right up there with “when did you stop beating your spouse?”

Whatever the truth is – and I believe both Harper and the Nationals made their peace with the separation a long time ago – nobody is going to say anything negative. If Harper said if he had to do it over again he’d stay with the Nats, he alienates his current team and gets to answer that question a million times in the off-season.

If any current Nationals player or executive were to even hint that the team is better without Harper, that too would make headlines for months to come and make the Nats look petty, something that is very important they don’t look like. They’ve created an incredible clubhouse atmosphere, they’re in the World Series, and to potential free agents, they look like a very attractive place to consider. They don’t want to do anything – no matter how small – to tarnish that.

Truth is, I like Bryce Harper. I would have preferred he stayed and been a part of all this. I know there are people who don’t like him because they think he’s cocky, brash and full of himself, and I get that. He was a star early in his life, he had people telling him since he was very young that the rules didn’t necessarily apply to him because of his talent, and that has certainly led to some regrettable behavior.

For a further example of this, check out Ralph Sampson in his younger days. I got to cover him in high school and college and he was not the most collegial fellow around in those days.

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Here's My List Of Who Should Throw Out The First Pitch...

The Washington Post’s Scott Allen raises an interesting question today when he wonders who should throw out the ceremonial first pitches at the Nationals’ World Series games.

He lists 16 candidates, and even notes they are “mostly serious” as some are good ideas and some read like he’s sampled one too many of the concession stand delicacies he’s been known to write about every year when Nats Park and Fed Ex Field add new food offerings to their overpriced menus.

I, of course, have my own list. Since the Nats are only guaranteed a minimum of 2 home game and a maximum of 3, there’s no need to pound out another 16. But I do have six in mind so there’s always one and a backup for each game.

Here’s my list:

Sonny Jurgensen: If you’re an older person like me (and a significant part of the Nationals faithful is) Sonny was the first real superstar we all followed. No. 9 was the bright light on dimly lit Redskins teams, and when he was done playing, he moved over to television and radio for another 40 years to keep us all in the pocket. Frank, Sonny and Sam were a broadcasting institution that will never ever be replicated, and many of us to this day still wear No. 9 Jurgensen jerseys on game day.

Baseball is a sport of tradition, and with Sonny just retiring, it would only be fitting to have someone so much a part of Washington sports history for so long a period of time throw out the first pitch.

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Martinez Was More Than A Manager This Season; He Was A Leader

In all my years of managing in the corporate world, I used to marvel at how many people I encountered that were technically proficient in the subject matter they presided over, but utterly clueless when it came to managing and motivating people.

It reached its zenith a few years ago when a director-level Human Resources person told a seminar we were all forced to attend that you must treat everyone the same to be an effective manager.

No, HR genius. That’s a recipe for disaster.

Everyone has a different button that motivates and encourages them, and a failure to recognize what that is will pretty much doom you to failure, particularly if things go south and you need the troops to rally around each other. Every organization has leaders and followers, complainers and problem-solvers, career-climbers and “I’m just here waiting until I retire.” There is no one size fits all.

They will follow you if they perceive you care about them and they’re not just another cog in the corporate machine. After decades of managing people, I can tell you there are two things you can’t do to achieve this: You can’t fake caring, as people can sense whether you do or you don’t; and you can’t treat everybody the same.

I say all this as a backdrop to the insightful story Jesse Dougherty has in today’s Washington Post about Davey Martinez. As an x’s and o’s manager, I’ve never been particularly high on Martinez’s skills, and even with the World Series success, I’m still not ready to pronounce him a genius. But after reading how he handled the team this season, I am ready to pronounce him a professional grade leader.

He was the right manager for the situation called the 2019 Washington Nationals.

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Mike Rizzo Beware; I Live With A Baseball GM In Waiting...

I have been married for a long, long time. So long, in fact, that a friend once suggested I’d been married all my life because if you can’t remember what’s it like to be single, it might as well be all your life. And I can’t remember what it was like to be single.

Specifically, this is the 39th year my wife Deb and I have been married (anniversary No. 38 was in March) and there are a few things we’ve always done that minimizes the kind of friction that could threaten a long-term relationship. One of those is we don’t watch sports together.

Part of that is just the pure volume of sports I watch. When we were first married, I was a sportswriter for the Roanoke Times in the southwestern part of the state. ESPN had just been added to our cable system. Left to my own devices, I would (and did) watch sports all the time. It is my passion, my hobby, and I make no apologies for it. It brings me happiness.

My wife, conversely, can tolerate only a few sporting events. She likes to watch the Super Bowl. She loves to go to games with me, but moreso for all the food,  beverage and other peripheral things associated with being at a game. On any given night, however, she far prefers to watch things like Hallmark Movies, HGTV,  sensitive, feely shows like This Is Us (she once told me I should watch it because it would make me cry; I replied "why would I want to watch something that made me cry?") or DVRs of soap operas.

One month after we were married back in 1981, I noticed the source of many disagreements involved the main television in our den. Not money, politics, family or other issues. It was who was going to control the main TV for each night’s watching. I made an executive decision.

I drove to a nearby Woolco (that’s a name out of the past, isn’t it?) and found the exact same TV we had in the den. I purchased it, came home, and placed it in what was at the time our guest room (house only had two bedrooms, as we were just starting out). We had pooled our furnishings when we got married and had an old, beatup sofa in the basement. I crammed it into the tiny room, and now we had two places with the same viewing opportunities, only separate.

Each person could watch what they wanted, during timeouts and commercials one went to go see the other (the house was so small, we were only a few feet apart) and everyone was happy.

Hey, you do all sorts of things in the name of compromise to stay married all your life. This worked.

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Oh, It's Real. And It's Spectacular...

Last night, when the final out was recorded and the Washington Nationals were officially in the World Series, I have to admit it did not at first feel real.

It was sort of like when the Washington Capitals finally won the Stanley Cup. You knew in both situations the two teams were going to eventually win since they had such overwhelming leads. The only question was would it be that particular night, or postponed until the next game.

When it finally happened, it was more relief than celebration.

It wasn’t until after watching all the dancing, champagne-dousing and hearing all the interviews that it finally sunk in: This team will be playing in a World Series here in DC. God-willing, I will be at one of the games and see it in person with my wife.

I suppose it’s like anything you look forward to for a long time, you come close, but you never actually get over the hump. Following DC sports in and of itself is a frustrating venture; the Caps and Nats have always been like Charlie Brown trying to kick the football, only to have Lucy pull it away at the last second year after year after year.

Last night, she didn’t. She apparently fell asleep like she did in Game 5 between the Caps and Las Vegas last year. It made me a little emotional, not because a favorite team finally won (OK, maybe a little of it was because the Nats finally won), but because it had me reminiscing about all the people I’ve met and known over the years who wanted to see this so badly, and are no longer here to witness it.

Baseball fans are an interesting lot. I’m a Washington Sports fan and will pull for any team in any sport that has “Washington” on its jersey. If I have a preference, it’s football, but overall, I just want to see the local team do well.

My lifelong buddy Tim, conversely, is a seamhead, and typical of a serious baseball fan. They live for baseball and will even watch batting practice on television just to see someone apply a bat to a ball. He’s not unique either, as since the team came here in 2005, I’ve sat with dozens of people in the stands at either RFK or Nats Park who intensely love the game, appreciate its history, and in many cases shared that love with their fathers, who handed down that passion in the first place.

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A Win Tonight Makes This Team The Winningest In Nats' History

If the Washington Nationals win tonight, they make the World Series, which in and of itself is a historical feat. But they will also become the winningest team in the history of the franchise as well.

The best regular-season record belongs to the 2012 team that put up 98 wins during the first 162 games. This year’s 93 wins is only the seventh best in team history in that regard, trailing the Nationals teams of 2012 (98), 2017 (97), 2014 (96) and 2016 (95) in addition to the 1979 Montreal Expos (95) and 1993 Montreal team (94).

But when you add in post-season wins, 100 is the magic number. The 2012 team lost to the Cardinals 3 games to 2, but those two victories game them 100 wins, which until this week was the best in the history of the franchise. This year’s Nats have won 7 games in the playoffs, also giving them 100 wins. So a win tonight not only closes out the series for the Nats, it gives them 101 wins.

Since we’re all in the moment, the scale of just how improbable this is has not really dawned on me or a lot of others. After waiting all my life, I went down to spring training this year and came home thinking this team is not very good. It had been somewhat disappointing in 2018 under new manager Davey Martinez, and it did not appear to have gotten any better. The same issues with fundamental mistakes and a bad bullpen had not gone away in the offseason.

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With The Nationals, It's Starting To Feel Like Deja Vu All Over Again

As they say in the stock market, past performance is not indicative of future results, so this is not a prediction. But there is something eerily similar about the road the Washington Nationals are traveling versus the roadmap used by the Washington Capitals last year in winning the Stanley Cup.

The Nats, as much as I love them, are a flawed team. They have excellent talent at certain positions, but they’ve invested in that talent at the expense of the bullpen. Manager Davey Martinez – the kind of guy you pull for because he seems to be such a genuinely good guy – hasn’t been the greatest at pushing the right buttons with that flawed bullpen and the regular season reflected that with the team at one point being 19-31.

Even as they started winning, that trend never totally went away. Every 10 to 14 days, you’d turn off the television and think “there’s another one they should have won but blew in the last two innings.” Because of that, I think most Nats fans being honest with themselves would admit at one point during the season they didn’t think the team would make the playoffs. And if they did, they’d get beat in the wildcard game.

The Caps sort of did the same thing. From early January to early March in 2018, they were 10-10 over a 20-game stretch and didn’t look good. They’d lose 3 in a row, win two in a row, then lose two more in a row. Four of the losses during that stretch were in overtime, blowing leads in the final minute, then losing in OT (substitute bullpen for goalie and you’ve got the same deal). Since the team could never seem to get past the second round, many were saying on Twitter that the good news was this year, that wouldn’t happen. They’d just get eliminated in the first round and save us all the aggravation.

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It Has Been Seven Years, But Payback Is Now Finally Complete

It has taken 7 years. But finally, the monster is dead.

The monster I speak of was that horrible night in October of 2012. The Nats were in the deciding game of a series against the St. Louis Cardinals. They had a 6-0 lead. Everyone was feeling pretty good.

Then we all watched in horror at one of the most soul-crushing, gut-wrenching, black hole of depression things to ever happen. It was so bad, many of us still refer to that contest as “the game that can never be mentioned.”

But tonight, those same two teams met in a playoff game at Nats Park for the first time since that black Friday in 2012. Just like seven years ago, the Nationals took a 6-0 lead.

But this time, the ghosts of the past were exorcised. The lead didn’t crumble. Instead of blowing the lead, the Nats actually grew the lead into an 8-1 win to give the Nats a 3-0 lead in the series and place them one game from playing in its first World Series.

The biggest difference? Pitching. In 2012 Gio Gonzales made it through 5 innings, had a big lead, then faltered. By the time he left it was 6-3. After Craig Stammen, Sean Burnett, Edwin Jackson and Tyler Clippard were done, it was 6-5. The Nats would score a run in the bottom of the eighth, then Drew Storen would have his day of infamy, turning a 7-5 lead into a 9-7 loss.

This year, the Nats didn't even need to rely on the bullpen because of Stephen Strasburg. If you missed the 97 times WTBS pointed it out, yes, he was shutdown in 2012 and didn’t pitch in the series. But man, did he pitch tonight…so well that by the time he left after 7 innings, he turned over such a big lead that the Nats didn’t even have to use their best relievers. With a big lead, Fernando Rodney and Tanner Rainey went in relaxed, threw like they had nothing to lose, and retired the side in the 8th and 9th without giving up a single run.

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The Trip Turned Out To Be A Baseball Version Of "A Christmas Carol"

I just finished a week in West Palm Beach, FL watching spring training. Great weather, good baseball, wonderful people, and as close to having days where you don’t have a care in the world as you will probably ever experience.

But if you look closer, you may see more. Like Charles Dickens “A Christmas Carol” I think I also got to see my past, present and future.

The under-rated aspect of spring training is the people. All are bonded by one common interest – baseball – and one of the greatest aspects of following sports are great stories and great memories. Sit next to someone in spring training and ask a question about baseball, and in a matter of minutes you’re like family. You have shared experiences through the sport, in both good times and heartbreak.

There are exceptions – I’m looking at you Boston Red Sox fans – but by and large, the rest of us fans who haven’t enjoyed something like 137 titles in three sports over the last 15 years don’t speak with a spirit of superiority. This leads to some great conversations.

The spirit of baseball past started for us from the very first game. My oldest and best friend Doug and I drove to Jupiter to see the Nats play the Marlins. I learned if you want to have great seats, go to a game involving your favorite team and the Marlins. They don’t show up for regular season games, so they show up even less for spring training games. Buy the cheapest ticket to get in, and then you can have your pick of any seat in the stadium.

We sat under the covered area that was even with third base. A few innings into the game, a young man named Codey took a seat right behind us. He was a student at Ball State and he was a sportswriter, writing for the student newspaper. A group of students from Ball State had headed down to spring training for the experience of it, and he was looking for story angles.

As I also worked my way through my final two years at Virginia Tech as a sportswriter for a weekly newspaper called the Blacksburg Sun, I couldn’t help but think “this kid is me 40-plus years ago.” As a result, the first thing we did was feed him. They had come down to Florida from Indiana with as many crammed into a car as possible, sleeping four to a cheap hotel room, and I was pretty sure the simple pleasure of a $6 hot dog was not in his budget. I know 1977 Dave would have appreciated it.

We spoke of baseball in the 60s and 70s, as Doug and I talked of following Frank Robinson, Hank Aaron, Pete Rose, Bob Gibson and many more that were probably ancient history to him. We talked about Bryce Harper going to the Phillies. I talked with him about sportswriting as a career, gave him all the advice I could without sounding like his Dad (my own father’s advice had been to give up sportswriting, come home, drive a truck and make more money), and because he’s a Ball State alum, even talked about David Letterman.

After a few innings, he left to pursue other conversations. Two sportswriting baseball fans of different generations, passing in the bright Florida sun.

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