The Washington Nationals were a team with a high payroll built around a particularly expensive rotation. They played in a hotly competitive division and got off to a slow start amid high expectations.
Does that sound familiar, Red Sox fans?
The Nationals were 19-31 after 50 games and 10 games out of first place in the National League East. The Red Sox were 27-24 and six games out at the same juncture.
But as manager Alex Cora often said, the Sox never got on a sustained run. The Nationals were 69-36 starting June 1. Only the Astros had as many wins during that stretch.
“These guys, we stuck together. They believed in each other. I believed in them,” manager Dave Martinez said after the Nationals won the World Series by beating the Astros in seven games. “This year, I can honestly say nothing would have surprised me. I mean, from where we started, getting booed, you name it. We’ve been through a lot.”
Martinez could have been a day or two away from being fired in May. But general manager Mike Rizzo stuck to the idea that he built a good team that would find its way.
“Pretty much everybody eliminated us from the season in May,” catcher Kurt Suzuki said. “Basically you’ve just got to go out and play. You can’t worry about what’s at stake and this and that. You try to play it as much as possible as another baseball game.”
The Red Sox rotation broke down outside of Eduardo Rodriguez, but the Nationals got what they expected from Patrick Corbin, Anibal Sanchez, Max Scherzer, and Stephen Strasburg.
Martinez then followed the lead of Cora and the 2018 Red Sox by relying heavily on his starters in the postseason.
Corbin, Sanchez, Scherzer, and Strasburg accounted for 107⅔ innings, 70.4 percent of what Washington needed in the postseason. They made seven relief appearances.
The Red Sox used Nathan Eovaldi, Rick Porcello, David Price, Rodriguez, and Chris Sale for 99 innings in the 2018 postseason, 66 percent of the innings. They made 15 relief appearances.
“We sat them down before the wild-card game and told them we’d need them out of the bullpen. They all raised their hands,” Washington pitching coach Paul Menhart said. “They were all in from the start of this. They bought into what we wanted to do.”
The Red Sox had a huge lead in the division a year ago and were able to give their starters extra rest leading up to the postseason, a big advantage. They also played only 14 postseason games.
The Nationals were fighting for position through the end of the regular season and ended playing 17 postseason games.
We all saw how the extra month of work affected the Red Sox starters the following year. How the Nationals adjust next season will be worth following.
“I’ll worry about that when the time comes,” Menhart said. “We’ll sit down and talk about it.”
The Nationals also survived five elimination games and all the emotion that goes into that.
“It’s almost like we’ve done it so many times that we have to get punched in the face to kind of wake up,” Strasburg said. “I think it’s just the M.O. We don’t quit. We never quit throughout the season despite kind of everybody saying that we were done.”
It wasn’t the same, of course. But the Nationals winning it all felt a little like the 2004 Red Sox in that Washington had gone decades without a championship.
“You could feel the people get on our side all summer,” third baseman Anthony Rendon said. “I think that helped us.”
Some other World Series takeaways:
■ It was great to see Nationals special assistant Bob Schaefer earn his first World Series ring after starting in pro ball as a player in 1966. Schaefer, 75, played at the University of Connecticut and was with the Red Sox from 1993-98 as director of player development. He is from Putnam, Conn., a little more than an hour from Fenway Park.
■ The Nationals and Astros share a spring training complex, the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches in Florida. The first two games next season are Nationals at Astros on Feb. 22 and Astros at Nationals on Feb. 23. They are scheduled for six games in all.
■ Astros manager A.J. Hinch stood tall in losing, representing the team well during the controversy about assistant general Brandon Taubman making crude remarks to several women reporters after Game 6 of the ALCS.
Hinch seems to actually enjoy the back and forth with reporters and talking about the game and his thinking in different situations.
He also defends his players while at the same time holding them accountable for their mistakes. That can be a fine line.
■ The Nationals are scheduled to visit the White House on Monday. It’s a smart move to get that done quickly. The Red Sox spent six months being asked about who would go, whether they should go, etc.
I never got the sense it was a distraction or contributed to their slow start. But it was an unnecessary annoyance.
■ That the Nationals won the Series after Bryce Harper left as a free agent and signed a 13-year, $330 million deal with the Phillies should give hope to Red Sox fans that losing Mookie Betts to trade or free agency at some point in the next year won’t be the end of the world if it happens.
The Nationals were sixth in the majors in runs without Harper. Betts is a better all-around player than Harper to be certain, but good, well-managed teams can always find a way.
■ Menhart became pitching coach of the Nationals in May after Derek Lilliquist was fired.
He played for Fitch High School in Groton, Conn., graduating in 1987 before going to play at Western Carolina and then for parts of three seasons in the majors.
I covered his last game in high school as a first-year reporter for the Norwich, Conn., Bulletin. We caught up in person for the first time since before Game 1 of the Series.
Baseball can be a really small world sometimes.
ASKING AN EXPERT
Former Yankee is high on Liu
The Red Sox made an under-the-radar move last month when they signed Taiwanese righthander Chih-Jung Liu for $750,000. The 20-year-old drew the interest of several teams, the Diamondbacks and Phillies among them.
To gain some insight on Liu, I texted a few questions to former big leaguer Chien-Ming Wang. The sinkerballer won 55 games and had a 4.16 ERA for the Yankees from 2005-09 after signing out of Taiwan.
“He has velocity,” said Wang, who had worked a little with Liu. “But MLB hitters are used to dealing with that. He needs to improve his slider and splitter to have a good out pitch.”
Liu was initially on the roster for Taiwan’s team in the Premier12 tournament, an Olympic qualifier.
But he withdrew last week citing fatigue after helping Taiwan win the Asian Games.
“He’s bright,” Wang said. “He seems to be able to adapt to new environment quickly. The challenge may be the difference of the training and workload for a professional player and a student-athlete.”
Liu was overworked as a high school player in Taiwan and enrolled in college rather than playing professionally.
Coaches there used him as a shortstop and only recently did he return to pitching.
His fastball hit 98 miles per hour and the Sox moved quickly to sign him. They want to develop Liu as a starter. He’s likely a few years away from the majors.
“He needs to build up his arm strength and pitch count,” Wang said. “He wants to learn the sinker from me. He looked at me for a while and then he popped the question.”
A few other observations on the Red Sox:
■ New chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom is the first head of baseball operations the Red Sox hired directly from another team since Dan Duquette left the Montreal Expos for Boston in 1994.
Duquette took over for Dave Dombrowski with the Expos and now Bloom takes over for Dombrowski with the Sox.
■ The Red Sox activated Dustin Pedroia off the 60-day injured list on Thursday, which returns him to the 40-man roster.
There seems to be little chance Pedroia will play again following a series of surgeries on his left knee. But he is signed for two more seasons at $13 million (2020) and $12 million (2021).
At the moment, the Sox have 35 players on the 40-man roster. If it gets to the point of needing a spot on the roster, the Sox will have to consider releasing Pedroia and paying off his deal.
The Mets faced the same dilemma with David Wright in 2018 and released him on Jan. 7, 2019 with two years and $27 million remaining on his deal.
Worth remembering: Wright and Pedroia have the same agents, Sam and Seth Levinson. They’ve handled this delicate situation before.
■ World Series Most Valuable Player Stephen Strasburg was 2-0 in two appearances and allowed four earned runs over 14⅓ innings.
David Price was 2-0 in three appearances in the World Series last season and allowed three earned runs over 13⅔ innings. But Steve Pearce was named MVP.
Pearce had three homers and eight RBIs. Anthony Rendon had three doubles, two homers, and eight RBIs this season. Winning is what matters, not who was MVP. But Price should have been the MVP in ’18. It was obvious a year ago and even more so now.
■ Brian Butterfield, who was on the Sox coaching staff from 2013-17, followed Joe Maddon from the Cubs to the Angels and will coach third base. Next season will be Butterfield’s 24th coaching in the majors and 42nd in professional baseball as a player, manager or coach.
■ When Michael Brantley struck out to end the World Series on Wednesday, Tyler Kepner of the New York Times pointed out it was the first strikeout to end a World Series Game 7 since Marty Barrett went down swinging against Jesse Orosco in 1986.
■ Former Sox reliever Takashi Saito was recently named pitching coach of the Yakult Swallows in Japan.
A shift in this stat formula
Defensive Runs Saved is an easily understood statistic. It accounts for how many runs saved (or cost) a fielder is worth on a cumulative basis and is derived by employees of Baseball Information Systems who watch each play and break them down.
BIS will now incorporate pre-pitch infield shifts into its formula. Basically, a player won’t lose points for being out of his position if he was purposely out of position.
Those hits will be attributed to the team.
DRS will now be based on positioning, range, throws, and balls in the air.
How’s this for cold-blooded: An Astros staffer asked Gerrit Cole if he would speak to reporters after Game 7 of the World Series. “I’m not employed by the team,” said Cole, who became a free agent when the season ended. Cole grudgingly agreed to the interview but first put on a cap with the logo his agent, Scott Boras, uses for his company. Cole prefaced his answer to the first question by saying, “I guess as a representative of myself . . . ” That said, all 30 teams would take Cole in a second . . . A lengthy search process by the Mets resulted in Carlos Beltran being named manager, and it’s a wise choice. Beltran is smart, commands respect among the players (and media), and is schooled in analytics after playing for the Astros in 2017 then joining the Yankees as an adviser. He’s also familiar with the pitfalls of working for the Mets after playing for them from 2005-11. It’s a bold call by general manager Brodie Van Wagenen, choosing another first-time manager after Mickey Callaway lasted only two seasons. If Beltran doesn’t work out, the spotlight will be on Van Wagenen. The easy way out would have been to hire Joe Girardi, who went to the Phillies . . . The Rays are not planning to hire from outside the organization to replace Chaim Bloom. Two staffers promoted to vice president have Boston-area connections: Tufts graduate Peter Bendix and Boston native James Click . . . A very happy 68th birthday to the great Dwight Evans, who played 19 seasons for the Red Sox and won eight Gold Gloves along with hitting 379 home runs. From a statistical standpoint, Evans compares very favorably to Hall of Famers Tony Perez, Al Kaline, and Billy Williams but has so far been shut out of Cooperstown. Dewey remains active with the Red Sox and seeing him around spring training wearing No. 24 is always a highlight. Happy birthday as well to former Sox relievers Paul Quantrill (1992-94) and Alex Wilson (2013-14). Quantrill is 51 and Wilson is 33.
Important offseason dates
Sunday: Rawlings Gold Gloves announced. Andrew Benintendi, Mookie Betts, Jackie Bradley Jr., and Christian Vazquez are finalists.
Monday: Deadline for J.D. Martinez to exercise his opt-out clause. Deadline for teams to make $17.8 million qualifying offers to free agents. BBWAA awards finalists are announced. Hall of Fame Modern Baseball Era Committee Era ballot announced.
Wednesday: Major league free agents can start signing.
Thursday: Silver Sluggers are announced.
Nov. 11-12: GM meetings in Scottsdale, Ariz.
Nov. 11: BBWAA Rookies of the Year announced.
Nov. 12: BBWAA Managers of the Year announced.
Nov. 13: BBWAA Cy Young Awards announced.
Nov. 14: BBWAA Most Valuable Players announced. Deadline for free agents to accept qualifying offers.
Nov. 18: BBWAA Hall of Fame ballot announced.
Nov. 19: Edgar Martinez Outstanding DH award announced.
Nov. 19-21: Owners meetings in Arlington, Texas.
Nov. 20: 40-man rosters must be set.
Dec. 2: Last day to offer contracts to unsigned players on the 40-man roster.
Dec. 8: Hall of Fame Modern Baseball Era Committee vote announced in San Diego.
Dec. 9-12: Winter meetings in San Diego.
Dec. 10: J.G. Taylor Spink Award winner will be announced at the winter meetings. The late Nick Cafardo is one of the finalists.
Dec. 11: Ford Frick Award winner announced at the winter meetings.
Dec. 12: Rule 5 draft.
Jan. 10: Salary arbitration figures exchanged.
Jan. 21: BBWAA Hall of Fame voting announced.
Feb. 3-21: Salary arbitration hearings in Phoenix.