The vaunted trio trickled into the nation’s capital one year at a time, and now after spending the last seven years together, their journey is nearing a dramatic conclusion, one they hope stretches into November.
Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper, two of the most celebrated draft picks in baseball history, and their mentor, Jayson Werth, now are poised to take the Washington Nationals where they have never gone since the franchise’s berth.
This is the year, their last hurrah together – with Werth’s $126 million contract expiring after this season and Harper perhaps becoming baseball’s first $500 million man in free agency after 2018 – that they hope to make history, bringing a World Series championship to Washington, D.C., for the first time since 1924.
If they are ever going to do it, this has got to be their year.
“We really want to do this, especially for J-Dub, for just what he’s meant to all of us,’’ Harper told USA TODAY Sports. “J-Dub has been our leader since the day I got here. He’s been somebody I can lean on, and we can lean on him. He’s the one who has helped take this organization to where it is.
“If this is his last year, we’d like to take him on a good, long run in the playoffs, and have a whole lot of fun doing it.’’
This is a franchise that has won the second-most games in baseball since 2012. The Nationals, along with the Los Angeles Dodgers, are the only teams to win four division titles in the last six years. Yet, they been haunted by their October failures.
Three times they have played in the National League Division Series.
Three times they have lost.
Even in their 35 years in Montreal as the Expos, they never won a playoff series beyond a best-of-three in strike-shortened 1981.
This time, the Nationals insist, will be different.
They not only have Strasburg pitching as dominant as any time in his career, giving the Nationals perhaps the best rotation in baseball with NL Cy Young favorite Max Scherzer, Gio Gonzalez and Tanner Roark, but also a healthy Harper. He took live batting practice, ran the bases, and played the outfield for the first time Monday since being sidelined Aug. 12 with a deep bone bruise and strained calf.
He vows to be back in the lineup early next week – plenty of time before Game 1 of their Division Series on Oct. 6 at Nationals Park.
“There was never a doubt Bryce would be back,’’ Werth said. “Never. He knows what this means. This team is special, and by far is the best personnel-wise since I’ve been here. This is still a young team, but they’re battle-tested now. And we’re good.
“Things have changed so much here. When I came here seven years ago, people thought I was crazy signing with these guys. No one wanted to come here. I was adamant that we were going to win, and go all of the way.
“Here we are. You never know what’s going to happen, but I’m thinking this is it for me, my last chance to do it here.
“Crazy how it’s all worked out.’’
Even more bizarre is that although Werth, Harper and Strasburg have been together since 2011, with the team playing 14 playoff games, only once have they played in the same postseason game.
Strasburg, the No. 1 pick in the 2009 draft, wasn’t around in last year’s playoffs, sidelined by a sore elbow. He was their ace in 2012, but missed those playoffs, too, shut down by the Nats’ front office for precautionary reasons after missing most of 2011 with Tommy John surgery. Strasburg’s only playoff start was Game 1 of the 2014 Division Series, losing, 3-2, against the eventual World Series champion San Francisco Giants.
Now, after just one appearance, pitching just five innings, Strasburg is back, pitching almost with a vengeance.
“The past is the past,’’ Strasburg said quietly, seated in front of his locker, “but last year was definitely tough. And in 2012, I was young. I didn’t really realize the impact of it. You never know where I’d be at if I did throw in the playoffs that year, but there’s nothing I can do to change that now.
“I’m just trying to be in the moment now, doing everything I can to stay healthy, and take advantage of the opportunity presented in front of me. I’m really just trying to peak at the right time here.’’
Well, no one is pitching better in the National League these days. He had a franchise-record 35 consecutive scoreless inning streak, and in his six games since coming off the DL, is yielding a 0.66 ERA, .174 opponents’ batting average, with 49 strikeouts in 41 innings. If Scherzer, Strasburg and Gonzalez continue to rank among the top four in ERA, they would be the first teammates to pull off the feat since the 1967 Chicago White Sox.
Strasburg, who signed a seven-year, $175 million contract extension a year ago, makes that kind of difference.
“It’s been tough for him,’’ Werth says, “but he’s in a good place now. When you have that name and talent he does, and he can’t perform, it sucks. It’s not like he doesn’t want to pitch. Everyone wants to play. And when we don’t get that opportunity, it just eats at you.
“But he’s really matured, especially this year. Hopefully, we’re going to have him throughout the postseason, and he’s going to help us win this whole thing. Because when he’s out there, he’s good. Really, really good.’’
And with Harper, a five-time All-Star on his way to his second MVP before his injury, in the lineup at the same time, there’s little reason to believe the Nats won’t be playing in the World Series.
“I always knew I would be back, and I get a lot of that drive from J-Dub,’’ says Harper, who had Werth as one of his groomsmen at his San Diego wedding last winter. “He’s meant so much to me.’’
Werth, who missed 75 games with a fractured foot, is returning just in time, too. This isn’t the Nats’ farewell season he envisioned, hitting .234 with nine homers and 24 RBI, but who even notices those regular-season numbers if there’s a gaudy championship ring on his hand?
The Nationals may be loaded with stars everywhere you look, but this is Werth’s team. He’s the one who changed the culture upon his arrival, just as Hall of Famer Pudge Rodriguez did when he went to Detroit in 2004, teaching the young Nationals how to win.
“He’s keeping real quiet and private about this,’’ says Washington GM Mike Rizzo, “but it’s very, very important to him to finish this thing out. He realizes his place here. He’s such a big part of who we are. He made us a more professional franchise by coming here, his pedigree, his professionalism.
“Really, he kind of brought us into the big leagues. Guys like Bryce and Stras, I think, would really like to make this special for him. Really, we all would.’’