Nationals succeeded by spending money

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Throughout the playoffs, the Nationals have been cast as plucky underdogs fighting and scrapping their way into the World Series. It’s somewhat true: the Nats overcame a dreadful start to the regular season after losing their star outfielder in Bryce Harper, and were heavy underdogs in the NLDS against the Dodgers, who won 13 more games. But the Nationals are not David in a David vs. Goliath story. They’re closer to Goliath because they have flexed their payroll muscle to fill the roster with talented players.

The Nationals didn’t come close to matching the 13-year, $330 million contract the Phillies wound up agreeing to with Harper, instead offering a 10-year, $300 million deal of which about $100 million was deferred. Losing Harper has somewhat defined their 2019. But they did sign starter Patrick Corbin to a six-year, $140 million contract, and they’re paying Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg $38.33 million and $37.4 million, respectively. As we saw in the NLCS, it was the starting rotation that carried them into the World Series.

Scherzer, a three-time Cy Young Award winner, will not win the award again this year most likely, but he once again ranked among the game’s best pitchers. During the regular season, he posted a 2.92 ERA with 243 strikeouts across 172 1/3 innings. Strasburg led the league in wins with 18 and innings with 209 while authoring a 3.32 ERA with 251 strikeouts. Corbin continued to impress with a 3.25 ERA and 328 strikeouts in 202 innings. As a unit, the Nationals’ 3.53 ERA from starting pitchers ranked second-best in baseball behind the Dodgers. Sounds about right for a rotation collectively earning about $100 million.

We — the royal we — have been quick to point out when an uncommon strategy works, like the Cubs’ and Astros’ rebuilding strategies before they came in vogue or the Rays’ use of the “opener.” It’s only fair to point out that a time-tested strategy, spending money on good baseball players, also works. The Nationals’ current payroll of about $204.5 million is third-highest in baseball, according to USA TODAY.

In September, the Nationals’ NL East rival Phillies were reported by The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal to have curtailed efforts to compete for a Wild Card because of a lack of certainty. The front office didn’t want to invest significant resources into grabbing a lowly Wild Card only to have to match up with the behemoth Dodgers in the NLDS. But that’s exactly what the Nationals did. The Nationals also swept the slumping Phillies in a five-game series September 23-26.

The Phillies aren’t alone. We’ve seen in the last few offseasons that teams have become loath to invest in free agents, particularly ones 30 and older. Even Scherzer took notice. Asked about the Nationals’ collective age, Scherzer said via The Athletic’s Rustin Dodd, “It just seems everybody wants younger and younger players. And everybody wants to forget about all the old guys. We see it in free agency, we’re not dumb. And the fact (is) we’re the oldest team and we won the National League.”

Gerrit Cole, Anthony Rendon, and Josh Donaldson will highlight the upcoming free agent class. They could be joined by Strasburg, Aroldis Chapman, and J.D. Martinez if they exercise the opt-out clauses in their contracts. In the cases of Cole and Rendon, at least two-thirds of the league should be actively pursuing them but if the past few years are any indication, the actual interest will be muted and they won’t end up signing until after the new year. Front offices have continued to blindly recite the phrase “aging curve” while pointing at the Rays in an effort to scale back payroll. The Nationals, meanwhile, are putting the “money” back in Moneyball and they might win a championship because of it.

Swanson, Olson go deep vs Scherzer, Braves take NL East lead

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ATLANTA — Dansby Swanson and Matt Olson homered off Max Scherzer, lifting the Atlanta Braves to a crucial 4-2 victory Saturday night over the New York Mets and a one-game lead in the NL East.

The defending World Series champions beat aces Jacob deGrom and Scherzer on consecutive nights to take their biggest lead of the season in the division. New York, which held a 10 1/2-game cushion on June 1, faces its biggest deficit of the year with four games remaining.

Atlanta will try for a three-game sweep Sunday night, with the winner earning the season-series tiebreaker between the teams. Even though both teams are headed to the postseason, that’s important because the NL East champion gets a first-round bye in the playoffs.

Swanson’s 24th homer, a go-ahead, two-run shot in the fifth inning, touched off a frenzy among the sold-out crowd at Truist Park, the ball sailing a few rows up into the seats in left-center to make it 3-2. Olson hit his 32nd homer in the sixth, a solo shot into Chop House seats in right to put Atlanta up 4-2.

Austin Riley led off the fourth with a double and scored on Olson’s single to make it 1-all.

Kyle Wright (21-5) gave up two runs and seven hits with one walk and three strikeouts in five innings as he won his eighth straight decision. The Braves have won 16 of his last 17 starts.

New York went up 2-1 in the fifth when Pete Alonso, Francisco Lindor and Jeff McNeil hit consecutive two-out singles.

The Mets led 1-0 in the first when Brandon Nimmo singled, advanced on a walk and a single and scored on Eduardo Escobar‘s groundout. Wright, who threw 30 pitches in the first, stranded two runners in scoring position to prevent further damage.

Scherzer (11-5) allowed a first-inning single to Riley and a third-inning infield single to Ronald Acuna Jr., who advanced to third on a fielding error by Lindor at shortstop but was stranded when Michael Harris II lined out to center. Scherzer patted his glove and pumped his fist as he walked off the mound.

Scherzer was charged with nine hits and four runs with no walks and four strikeouts in 5 2/3 innings as the Mets were knocked out of first place for only the third day all season.

The Braves have won five of the last six against New York to tie the season series 9-all, outscoring the Mets 37-16 over that stretch.

Atlanta’s bullpen, which posted a 1.70 ERA in September, got a perfect inning from Dylan Lee in the sixth. Jesse Chavez faced four batters in the seventh, Raisel Iglesias faced the minimum in the eighth and closer Kenley Jansen pitched a perfect ninth for his NL-leading 39th save in 46 chances.

Since the Braves were a season low-tying four games under .500 at 23-27 after play on May 31, they have gone 76-32, tying the Los Angeles Dodgers for the best record in the majors over that span. They were a season-worst 10 1/2 games behind the first-place Mets on June 1.

Wright, the only 20-game winner in baseball this season, hasn’t officially become the first Braves pitcher to lead the league in wins outright since Russ Ortiz had 21 in 2003, but the Dodgers’ Julio Urias has 17 and can’t reach 20 before the regular season ends.

Wright will become the first Braves pitcher since Hall of Famer Tom Glavine in 2000 to lead the majors in wins. Houston ace Justin Verlander also has 17.

Wright began the game 1-4 with a 6.75 ERA in six career starts and one relief appearance against the Mets.

The Braves, who got homers from Riley, Olson and Swanson off deGrom on Friday, lead the NL with 240 homers.

TRAINER’S ROOM

Mets: All-Star RF Starling Marte (right middle finger fracture) has yet to begin swinging or throwing. Manager Buck Showalter said Marte is experiencing less pain but not enough to take the next step in his recovery. Marte has been sidelined since Sept. 7.

Braves: RHP Spencer Strider still has not thrown as he gets treatment on a sore left oblique. Manager Brian Snitker said there is no timetable for the rookie’s return. Strider has been sidelined since Sept. 21.

NICE GLOVE

Harris ran back and jumped to catch Nimmo’s fly against the wall in center field for the first out of the third.

UP NEXT

Mets RHP Chris Bassitt (15-8, 3.27 ERA) will face RHP Charlie Morton (9-6, 4.29) as the teams conclude a three-game series.