This is a love story. And like all good love stories, I didn't see it coming.

Or, rather, I'd pretty much ignored it. To be honest, I didn't pay much attention to the Washington Nationals during the regular season — I was busy investing my hopes and dreams into my emotionally manipulative hometown team, the Seattle Mariners. Then again, in my defense, the Nats started the year 19-31, 10 places out of first in the National League East, apparently intent on challenging the Detroit Tigers for the distinction of being the worst team in baseball.

By the time the Nationals got to the wild card game in September — having gone a subsequent 74-38 in the regular season, and challenging the Los Angeles Dodgers and Houston Astros for the distinction of being the best team in baseball — I was wallowing in full-on "my team won't be good until 2048" despair. Bandwagoning on the eve of the postseason, I idly preferred the flashier underdogs of Tampa Bay, Milwaukee, and Minnesota. If I thought about the Nationals at all, it was to joke about how they'd never won a playoff series.

But as my preferred teams were toppled, and the pennant races winnowed, I found myself watching more and more Nationals games as the team advanced from the wild card, then survived the division and championship series. Now I can only say I am ashamed to have ever counted myself among the nonbelievers: The Nationals are not only the most fun team in baseball, they are the only team that deserves to win the World Series.

And it looks like they really could! The Nats return home to Washington Friday night after humiliating the Astros at home in the first two games of the best-of-seven World Series, including a decisive 12-3 victory on Wednesday. And they make obliterating a historically good team — one some people believe, not so hyperbolically, could be the greatest team ever — look easy.

I mean, come on:

You wouldn't have seen dancing in the Nationals dugout a few short years ago. There was the ol' Stephen Strasburg shutdown decision back in 2012, when the shortsighted general manager, Mike Rizzo, refused to deviate from his ace's inning cap after Tommy John surgery. "We'll be back," were Rizzo's arrogant last words, "and doing this a couple more times." Needless to say, they didn't. Strasburg just couldn't stay healthy, and in the past seven years, the Nationals have lost in four separate playoff opening rounds — even when they had six-time all-star Bryce Harper, who opportunistically jumped ship to the Phillies last season.

Yet as if to spite Harper, who has used just about every chance to gloat about how much he looooves Philadelphia, the Nationals then ... got great. Strasburg suddenly looks like a 2014 Madison Bumgarner, Anthony Rendon is NL MVP bait, and rising star Juan Soto has proven he's the real deal despite not even being legal to drink the celebratory champagne before today.

More than just being good, though, the Nats are infectiously fun. In June, veteran outfielder Gerardo Parra changed his walk-up music to his two-year-old's favorite song, "Baby Shark," with the magic track pulling him out of a 0-for-23 slump with a double and a home run that very game. The song has remained the team's anthem through the postseason, with the players snapping baby shark hands at each other when they get on base (a single is Baby Shark, a double Mommy Shark, and a triple Daddy Shark — the more you know). The team even hangs a stuffed baby shark from their dugout fence, and consults with it when they need a boost:

And really, isn't that what baseball ought to be all about? Maybe not baby sharks specifically, but funny superstitions and friendships, luck, athleticism, and joy?

There is no starker contrast, then, than the Nats' opponents. The Astros caved to ugly ambition in 2018, when the team traded for closer Roberto Osuna, who came on a discount from the Toronto Blue Jays due to the 75-game suspension he'd racked up after being arrested for assaulting the mother of his toddler (the charges were dropped when she returned to Mexico and decided against traveling back to Canada to testify; Osuna had reportedly intended to plead not guilty).

The Astros' trade was skewered by critics who are frustrated with MLB's domestic violence policies, and was part of what made shouts of "I'm so f------ glad we got Osuna!" by assistant general manager Brandon Taubman to a group of women reporters after the Astros clinched the AL pennant last weekend so "offensive and frightening," in the words of Sports Illustrated's Stephanie Apstein. The Astros initially doubled down with a statement smearing Apstein's reporting as fabrication and claiming Taubman had been defending Osuna, only to issue a mea culpa late Thursday admitting their investigation had later confirmed Apstein's account. The Astros fired Taubman, although the disaster of their initial condescending response, paired with their increasing hostility toward the press, has left a bad taste in many mouths that won't so easily be washed away.

There will nevertheless be those who insist that despite all this, journalists "stick to sports." It's the World Series, after all! But while that'd be jolly, as many other writers have pointed out, the Astros' appalling behavior as a franchise has made it so we can't.

I agree. So instead, I'm going to root for what I love about baseball: redemption arcs, clubhouse buddies, 400-foot home runs, silly sunglasses, mocking Bryce Harper, mildly explicit at-bats, the extremely good human that is Sean Doolittle, happy dads, violent hugs, pitcher grunts, and jersey-color correlated wins. I'm going to root for baby shark. I'm going to root for the Nats.

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