WASHINGTON — Like everything in the Nationals recent history, this year revolved around Bryce Harper.
Harper signed that 13-year, $330 million deal with the Phillies. He did not take the Nats’ 10-year, $300 million offer. That freed the Nationals’ baseball soul and gave them money to spread around to other areas, including the already incredible starting staff.
“Bryce is not a bad guy and he’s a great talent,’’ one Nationals official told The Post, “it’s just that he sucks up all the energy in the room.’’
Now it is all about the Nationals going to the World Series, the first team from Washington to make it to the Fall Classic since 1933.
The Nationals ditched the Harper drama and made superstar talent Anthony Rendon, who has the calmest heartbeat in baseball, the centerpiece of the team.
They beefed up a phenomenal starting rotation by outbidding the Yankees for lefty starter Patrick Corbin (six years, $140 million) and finally fixed their bullpen.
They allowed Stephen Strasburg’s immense talent to blossom and let Mad Max Scherzer’s will set the tone. They added a genius-level pitcher and a perfect clubhouse addition in free agent Anibal Sanchez. They allowed the kids in the outfield, Juan Soto and Victor Robles, to play and make mistakes as they grew.
And most importantly, they got the playoff monster off their backs by coming back to win the wild-card game, which allowed the Nationals to make the most of their talent this October.
Soto works hard at his craft and stayed until midnight Monday at Nationals Park with hitting coach Kevin Long. He got two hits in the clincher on Tuesday against the Cardinals.
There is one more key transformation.
Howie Kendrick, 36 and coming back from an Achilles injury, rebuilt his swing in the winter in Arizona with Long, the former Yankee and Mets hitting coach.
“He’s had a magical season,’’ Nationals GM Mike Rizzo said.
Kendrick blasted the 10th-inning grand slam in Game 5 of the NLDS that sent the Dodgers into oblivion and got big hit after big hit against the Cardinals in the four-game sweep as he was named NLCS MVP.
Mr. Nat, Ryan Zimmerman, also had a comeback season, which deepened the lineup that starts with the speed of shortstop Trea Turner.
“Bryce is not a bad guy and he’s a great talent. It’s just that he sucks up all the energy in the room.’’ — Nationals official
The Nationals went from 19-31 to the World Series.
“We earned the 12 games under .500,’’ Rizzo said. “But then we also earned playing like .720 baseball the rest of the way.’’
As for the bullpen fixes, lefty Sean Doolittle got healthy (knee) and closer Daniel Hudson arrived from Toronto at the trade deadline, while strong-armed Tanner Rainey, who came over from the Reds for Tanner Roark in a trade for Tanners, took off.
All three bullpen arms shut down the Cardinals in the clinching game.
Rizzo put the pieces together, and one of the first things he did after that victory was to thank his scouts. Rizzo is the son of a still working scout, his dad Phil who is a Nats special adviser and turns 90 this November.
The manager, Dave Martinez, who learned how to push all the fun buttons from Joe Maddon with the Rays and Cubs as a bench coach, also implored his players to enjoy the game while he never stopped teaching.
“We’ve come a long way in the fundamentals department this year,’’ Rizzo said. “The first month and a half we were bad defensively, we were giving away three or four outs a game, we were bad on the bases, and it had to stop. Davey made a mandate we were taking mandatory infield practice until things got better.
And then when we got healthy and got our shortstop [Turner] and third baseman [Rendon] back.’’
Martinez wanted Gerardo Parra as a bench player after he was released by the Giants, and Baby Shark kept it loose, even getting Strasburg to lighten up by having teammates hug the ace in the dugout and get him to dance.
Rizzo traded for catcher Yan Gomes from the Indians in the offseason as well to help guide the Super Rotation. Nats starters held the Cardinals to a .141 average in the NLCS, and in the last three games, Scherzer, Strasburg and Corbin struck out 35 batters.
Of course the Mets had to play some role in the Nats success. When the Nationals came back to score seven runs in the ninth inning to shock the Mets, 11-10, in early September at Nationals Park, it showed these Nats that anything is possible.
“That comeback kind of puts the whole season into a blip,’’ right fielder Adam Eaton told me. “That was an amazing day. Just not giving up, just the beauty of baseball. You have outs to play with the game is never over. You can’t hold onto the ball. You can’t kneel, you can’t do a circle offense, you can’t dump and chase like in hockey. You’ve got to pitch the ball over the plate and something is going to happen.’’
Something happened. The Nationals are going to the World Series to play the Astros or the Yankees.
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