Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 16, 2016

For Nats Fans, The Long Wait Continues

Then there were four, and the one thing that we already know for certain about this year’s baseball playoffs is that when the last out is recorded in a couple of weeks and the championship celebration begins, it will mark the end of a long title drought for the winning franchise and its fans. Even people who pay little attention to the Great Game know that the Chicago Cubs last won a World Series more than a century ago, in 1908. Perhaps less appreciated by those most casual of fans is that the Northsiders haven’t played in a Series since losing to the Detroit Tigers in seven games in 1945, less than two months after the end of World War II.

While the wait for Cubs fans has been singular in nature, supporters of the other three teams still playing have all spent significant time in the desert as well. Chicago’s opponent in the NLCS, the Los Angeles Dodgers, have been replaying the video of the injured Kirk Gibson’s improbable walk-off home run in Game 1 of the 1988 World Series ever since the ball sailed into Dodger Stadium’s right field seats. After nearly three decades, surely they’d like to add something new to their postseason highlight reel. But that four games to one triumph over the heavily favored Oakland Athletics remains L.A.’s last Series win and visit.

As for the contestants in the ALCS, the Toronto Blue Jays won back-to-back titles in the early ‘90s, but haven’t played in the longest season’s finale since that second championship in 1993, a drought of twenty-three years. The Cleveland franchise was the American League representative in the 1995 and 1997 World Series, and also back in 1954, but all three of those visits ended in defeat. One has to look back almost seven decades, all the way to 1948 to find a baseball championship for Cleveland. So whether the wait has been a generation, a lifetime, or a century and then some, there is a team and its faithful out there that will soon finally again know the delirious joy of winning it all.

But only one team can win, which means that three other title droughts will continue. The three teams that will soon come up short will not be the only franchises counting the long years in purgatory. Six of the thirty major league teams have never celebrated a World Series championship. But four of them, Texas, San Diego, Houston and Milwaukee, have claimed their league’s title at least once (twice for the Rangers and Padres), and so have played in the Fall Classic. Only Seattle and Washington have never leapt the hurdle of even participating in a World Series, much less winning one. But the Mariners can claim to have won an opening round Division Series multiple times in the team’s history.

Then there is the sad tale of the Washington Nationals. Born in 1969 as the Montreal Expos, the team did win the NL East in the second half of the strike-split season of 1981. That was the first time that Division Series were contested, pitting the winners of each half of the interrupted season against each other. The Expos beat the Phillies three games to two to claim the NL East crown, before losing to the Dodgers in the NLCS.

Thirty-five years later that one-off Division Series, created to handle the unique case of a Great Game season split in two by a players’ strike, remains the franchise’s only postseason triumph. The Expos soon slipped back into also-ran status, and faced the threat of extinction when baseball briefly considered contraction early in this century. Instead the franchise was relocated to Washington, ending a drought of another kind in the nation’s capital, which had gone without a team for more than three decades since the second edition of the Senators decamped for Texas.

As the Nationals the team now has a dozen years of playing in Washington. The first seven were largely forgettable, as Major League Baseball first looked for a permanent owner and then the Lerner family began the process of rebuilding the franchise. But over the last five seasons, with draft picks like Jordan Zimmermann, Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper, and free agents like Rafael Soriano, Max Scherzer and Daniel Murphy, the Nats story has been entirely different.

While some of the players noted above have come and gone, from earliest April right through until the end of September, the Nationals have been and remain an elite team. Washington won the NL East in 2012, 2014 and 2016. Even when they faltered in the two odd-numbered years the Nationals were still very good. Over that five-year period Washington has won 458 games, by far the most in its division. That’s an average of nearly 92 wins per season, almost 11 games better than the two NL East teams tied for second with 404, the Mets and Atlanta.

It’s not just within their division that the Nationals rule. The St. Louis Cardinals are the only NL franchise with more victories over that period, all of three to be precise. The Dodgers and the Cubs, busy now trying to make it to the World Series, have won fewer regular season games. So too have the Giants and Mets, this season’s other two National League playoff participants.

But then October comes, and autumn remains the dismal season in southeast D.C. at Nationals Park. In 2012 Washington battled back to force a Game 5 against the Cardinals in the NLDS. The Nationals led by two going to the 9th, and the home fans stood and cheered. But closer Drew Storen melted down, and St. Louis went home with the victory. Two years later Washington coughed up the first two NLDS games at home against the Giants, the second in an agonizing 18 innings. There was no recovering from that deficit. This year the Nationals took a two games to one lead over the Dodgers last Monday, but they couldn’t overcome Clayton Kershaw the starter in Game 4, nor Clayton Kershaw the closer in Game 5.

The postseason moves on, and the climax draws steadily closer. Fans in L.A. or Toronto or Cleveland or, could it possibly come to pass, Chicago, will be celebrating in a couple of weeks. But in Washington the wait continues. For a World Series title, of course. But for the Nationals, even a first round win would be historic.

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