Before Baby Shark: How the Nationals’ belief began with a wild win

A line drive rose into the D.C. night, lifting with it the triumphant arms of the Nationals’ faithful. By the time Juan Soto’s three-run homer settled into the Red Porch, Nationals Park had erupted in elation, punctuating an evening of fluctuating emotions.

“Oh ye of little faith!” shrieked the woman, audible amid the celebration, to my left. She wagged a bell pepper slice at her fellow season ticket holders nearby, giddy that a go-ahead home run had interrupted an eighth-inning snack.

It was the third time that evening the Nationals had come back against the Miami Marlins. This time they cinched the lead for good. It was May 24.

For what it’s worth, I had complete faith in the 19-31 Nationals that night. Although my optimism in the Nationals League East’s fourth place team was more pessimism in its fifth. 

I’ve grown up a Marlins fan. And if there’s anything more ubiquitous with the 2012-2018 baseball time frame than the Nationals failing to advance in the postseason, it’s the Marlins losing at Nationals Park.

No lead was safe for the Fish. Not nine runs in the summer of 2018, and certainly not four runs here. 

What made this night unique was that I pulled for the Nats. Granted, I still sported my Miami attire. But I hoped the Nats would win. The Fish were still several rebuilding years from relevance. At 19-31, Washington was floundering, but, given its talented roster, not drowned. They needed this. 

They needed Anthony Rendon’s two-out, two-run home run to tie the game in the third inning. They needed every inch of angle on the outfield wall that kicked Victor Robles’ seventh-inning double just far enough to tie the game again. They needed all 100 miles per hour of Tayron Guerrero’s fastball that allowed Soto’s eighth-inning home run the distance to vanquish the Marlins for good. And they needed the ensuing cheers, from the meager, but respectably loyal contingent of fanatics who had demonstrated their faith simply by showing up on South Capitol Street for this Friday evening bash of the NL’s basement.

For every base, every run that went the Nats’ way, those fans, however feebly, rose to remind their team that the leaves of hope sprung in 2012 had not fallen yet.

In section 309, my little brother Joe sat to my left. He motioned to the short fan snacking on peppers in the middle innings. She wore a Nats hat, shirt, and even socks, visible in her seated posture, which did not grow noticeably taller when she stood. 

“She had a lanyard that all the old people have,” Joe recalled. Today’s youth no longer wear lanyards in their intended manner for fashion’s sake. “You never know what the reason is for those, but they all have them.”

A ticket tucked inside a team lanyard is the quintessential season ticket holder look…along with commemorative hat pins. The man sitting behind her adorned those on his vintage “DC” Nationals cap, which the team only used for its first handful of seasons in the district. He scratched on a large scorecard that impeded his mobility when he rose for each of the Nationals’ 12 runs. 

Assuming that night was not an anomaly, he possesses many scorecards from games far more memorable than this. Like any of Ryan Zimmerman’s 11 walk-off home runs, the other Zimmermann’s no-hitter, Max Scherzer’s near-perfect game, and perhaps Stephen Strasburg’s 2010 Major League debut, which welcomed the hope that all but these diehards had abandoned after 2019’s poor start.

Even some diehards had lost faith.

“It wasn’t just that they had been swept, it’s that they had lost in bad fashions,” my dad remembered of the 19-31 feeling. Washington had just come off a sweep at the hands of the New York Mets.

“Blood was in the water. If things didn’t go well this weekend, Davey Martinez could get fired.”

My friend Becky sat to my right, but remained even-keeled each time the Marlins took the lead. The Nationals had metered her expectations over the previous seasons.

“Based on DC’s precedent of disappointing fans…I was pretty sure we were done,” she remembered.

They were certainly medium, maybe even medium-well. But not done.

“After the Nats started making a comeback, she would get more optimistic after each play,” Joe said about our short fan neighbor he laughed at, and then with, throughout the night. “Even if it was a groundout she would be happy.”

Her crescendo of hope finally found sustainment when the Nats took the lead for good. And as she biblically chastised her neighbors for any assumed kernel of doubt, she became the first of the Nationals’ 2019 prophets to express warranted belief in an undying team.

“Oh ye of little faith!”

Even after a raucous win, the World Series seemed a fairy tale. Now 11 games under .500, the Nationals were just happy to be breathing.

“I wish I could say I’d believed in my team all season like those fans seemed to,” Becky said. “But I’ve seen too many seasons in the past where high expectations led to lots of heartbreak.”

“It was ‘Alright they got a win’,” my dad recounted about the night that’s now seen as the turning point of the Nationals’ season. “They have 20 wins now. They’re playing the Marlins and we’ll see what they can do this weekend.”

Slowly, surely, they climbed back to .500, then above .500, and consistently climbed until they had clinched a playoff spot. Then in October, Rendon’s home runs, Soto’s clutch hitting, and Davey Martinez’s gritty, albeit fortunate, managing shot to the forefront of baseball’s news cycle. The whole nation believed.

In Game Seven of the World Series, with optimism falling as quickly as Zack Greinke could finish off Washington’s hitters, all I could think about was the 3-1 deficit in NL Wild Card Game, the improbable comeback in the NLDS, and every other unexpected win between Memorial Day and the eve of Halloween.

“This is sad. It’s just slowly slipping away,” Paul texted me as the Nats trailed 2-0 with just eight outs of life left in their 2019 season.

“Believe.” I simply responded.

Because before Baby Shark, before Max Scherzer pitched with a black eye, before the Nationals thought of their blue jerseys as anything more than Tuesday’s uniform, there was May 24, when the Nationals three times proved that losing does not mean lost. That day, the 29,000 at Nats Park believed, and the Washington Nationals went “1-0 today” for the first time.

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