The Nationals’ Five Most Memorable Games
October 30, 2019: The Last Comeback is the Sweetest of All
The story of the 2019 Washington Nationals, the first world champions in franchise history, was one of fighting from behind. They were 19-31 to start the season before playing hot and qualifying for the postseason as a wild card. They trailed Milwaukee, 3-1, late in the one-and-done wild card game before rallying for three eighth-inning runs to triumph. In the NLDS, they were down two games to one against the highly favored Los Angeles Dodgers, won Game Four, then trailed Game Five also by a 3-1 score—rallying again in the eighth to tie, before Howie Kendrick’s grand slam in extras capped the series upset.
Fast forward to the World Series, where the underdog Nationals once again found themselves frequently playing catch-up against the high-powered Houston Astros. After pulling off the improbable and taking the first two games at Houston against top aces Gerrit Cole and Justin Verlander, the Nationals returned to Washington—and lost three straight. Now they had to go back to Texas needing to win both remaining games. They took care of business in Game Six, outlasting Verlander again. For Game Seven, they turned to ace Max Scherzer, whose original Game Five assignment had been called off by a stiff neck.
For six innings, the Nationals’ offense was shut down by veteran Zack Greinke, who was putting his Gold Glove pitching defense to good use. In the meantime, Scherzer was bending but not breaking, somehow allowing just two runs in an uneven effort as he walked more batters than he struck out for the first time in his last 257 appearances. Washington trailed, 2-0—but that had become the norm, given that the Nationals had been down at some point in six of seven games during the series.
In the seventh, the Nationals finally broke the goose egg as Anthony Rendon drilled a one-out solo home run. After a dubious walk to Juan Soto accentuated with several bad non-strike calls, Houston manager A.J. Hinch hit the panic button and removed Greinke for reliever Will Harris—who was welcomed by NLDS hero Howie Kendrick with an opposite line shot off the right-field foul pole to push the Nationals ahead, 3-2. Scherzer’s rotation mate Patrick Corbin, who had taken over an inning earlier, tamed any Houston response and pitched three total scoreless innings of relief—and got plentiful insurance as the Nationals added a run in the eighth and two in the ninth. Daniel Hudson finished off the Astros with a 1-2-3 frame in the ninth, and the Nationals completed the impossible.
October 11, 1981: Montreal’s Hourra Solitaire
Over 36 years of business based in Canada before moving onto Washington, the Montreal Expos made the postseason only once, in 1981—and under normal circumstances they wouldn’t have qualified, as the midseason players’ strike encouraged owners worried over fan defection to expand the playoff format and allow, for the first time, eight teams to survive past the regular season. The Expos finished second overall in the National League’s Eastern Division, but because they had the division’s best record in the season’s second half—after the strike ended—they were paired up with first-half winner Philadelphia to determine the official divisional champion.
The Expos won the first two games of the series with the Phillies but were sent down to defeat in the next two—setting up a winner-take-all Game Five at Philadelphia. The Expos had their ace, Steve Rogers, ready—but the Phillies had theirs ready as well in future Hall of Famer Steve Carlton. Through the first four innings, no one tallied as the expected pitcher’s duel evolved, even as Rogers evaded a few rallies—especially in the fourth when Gary Matthews was thrown out at home trying to break the ice for the Phillies. In the Montreal fifth, the Expos quickly—and successfully—countered, as they loaded the bases with one out when Rogers himself brought in the game’s first two runs on a single to center. The Expos added a third run an inning later as Larry Parrish doubled in Andre Dawson.
The Phillies tried in vain to scratch back at the Expos; Rogers survived one jam in the sixth by inducing an inning-ending double play ball by NL MVP Mike Schmidt, left single runners on base in the seventh and eighth, and finished the shutout in the ninth as the Phillies lined loudly into the final three outs.
Rogers’ six-hit blanking gave the franchise their first-ever postseason series victory—and their last for nearly another 40 years; moving onto the NLCS, Montreal lost a heartbreaking five-game series to Los Angeles in which Rick Monday’s tie-breaking homer in the ninth inning of Game Five—off Rogers—eliminated the Expos.
June 8, 2010: A Merry Strasmus to All
Few number one picks in the history of baseball generated as much buzz as Stephen Strasburg, the tall strong-armed pitcher from San Diego State with a fastball once clocked at 103 MPH and selected by the woebegone Nationals to start the 2009 draft. Fans in the Nation’s Capitol eagerly awaited his arrival at the big league level, and after he started the 2010 season in the minors winning seven of nine decisions with a 1.30 earned run average and a outrageously low 0.79 WHIP (walks and hits allowed per inning), they would get their chance on a pleasant D.C. evening before 40,000 fans—with, unusually enough for the Nationals, very few if any no-shows.
Strasburg’s opponents on the evening were the bottom-rung Pittsburgh Pirates, not exactly the most difficult assignment—but certainly more challenging than, say, the University of Wyoming. The 21-year old, mixing fastballs recorded at 100 MPH with sharp-breaking curves, went through the order the first time through, allowing one hit and striking out six. In the fourth, the Pirates looked ready to prove that Strasburg’s second ride through wouldn’t be so sweet, as often happens to first-time major league throwers, scoring two runs on a Delwyn Young home run. But Strasburg would not buckle under; rather, he regrouped and strengthened— retiring the side with two strikeouts in the fifth, striking out the side on just 11 pitches in the sixth, and doing it again in the seventh on 13 throws—the last, against Andy LaRoche, timed at 99.
With a 4-2 lead and 95 pitches delivered, Strasburg was told to call it a day. His line was sensational: Seven innings, two runs allowed on four hits, 14 strikeouts—and no walks. The strikeout total was the most by a Washington pitcher since the team’s move from Montreal five years earlier; it matched the highest total thrown in the majors for the year to date; and it fell one shy of the record for a major league debut. After the 5-2 win, Strasburg would make 11 more starts for the year before seriously damaging his elbow, leading to Tommy John surgery and one full year of rehab.
April 17, 1969: The Stoneman Age
In just the ninth game of their existence, the Expos manage to accomplish something a handful teams haven’t been able to do for up to 50 years: Throw a no-hitter.
The setting was Philadelphia’s Connie Mack Stadium, the victims were the Phillies and the aggressor was Bill Stoneman, who entered the game hardly a candidate to fire such a gem. This was only his third season, and his fifth major league start; in his first two outings of the new year with the new team, he allowed 11 runs (five earned) over nine innings. When he walked the first batter he faced on the evening, the heads must have already begun shaking in the Montreal dugout. But then he retired the next 10 batters, and despite walking three more Phillies in the middle innings, he still hadn’t allowed a hit and the doubting amongst the coaches began to quickly fade.
As the suspense began to build over whether Stoneman would actually throw a no-hitter, there was none to be afforded on the scoreboard, as the Expos gradually built up a lead thanks to Rusty Staub’s three doubles and a homer. In the ninth, Stoneman completed the no-no, nearly fainting when Deron Johnson, the final batter, laced a hard grounder that nearly knocked down Maury Wills at short, but the out was completed and the 25-year-old right-hander became the toast of Montreal, with 300 fans coming out to the airport in the middle of the night to welcome him home while the Expos instantly gave him a raise. He rewarded the team and fans three years later with a second no-hitter.
August 23, 1989: The Strangest Game
That any major league baseball was played in a stadium with a domed covering akin to scuba gear, with meters instead of feet listed on the outfield walls, and with fans speaking mostly French, was offbeat enough. Throw in one of the most bizarre games ever played on a late summer evening at Stade Olympique, and the atmosphere most have been dripping with pure enigmatic appeal.
A crowd of nearly 22,000 sat down for the first pitch between the Expos and the Dodgers in Montreal; five hours, 14 minutes, 22 innings, one run (with another overturned), 33 hits and the ejection of a mascot later, the game came to a merciful but unsuccessful conclusion for the Expos.
Pascual Perez got the start on the hill for Montreal against reigning NL Cy Young Award winner Orel Hershiser, and they dueled scoreless into the eighth inning; the bullpen picked it up from there and kept it 0-0 well into overtime. The tension already got to Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda by the 13th, complaining that Expos mascot Youppi—a bizarre blend of the Philly Phanatic, a Hanna Barbera cartoon character and orange-haired Rusty Staub—was causing too much distraction above the Dodger dugout; the umpires replied by ejecting Youppi from the game, the first such recorded ouster in baseball history. Three innings later, Larry Fitzgerald thought he had the game wrapped up for the Expos when he flied out to right with one out and the bases loaded, scoring Larry Walker from third—but while two of the four umpires hastily headed for the locker room, the other two hung out and heeded the appeal of the Dodgers, who said Walker left too early; they concurred and fetched their two colleagues back out on the field to continue play.
Rick Dempsey finally broke the ice in the top of the 22nd inning and made it feel like Rick Monday all over again for the few hundred left in the stands when he lifted a leadoff homer over the fence off Dennis Martinez, pitching his second inning of emergency relief. Hoping to get even or better in the bottom of the frame, the Expos found two-out life from Rex Hudler’s single—but Hudler was tagged out trying to steal his way into scoring position, ending the game. The marathon was the longest in Expos history and the longest scoreless duel since 1968; the consolation prize for Montreal was that they didn’t issue a single walk to a Dodgers batter, matching a major league record for the most innings in a game without one.
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