Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 15, 2017

Dominance And Disappointment, Together Again In D.C.

Oh, somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright;
the band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light,
and somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout;
but there is no joy in D.C. — mighty Harper has struck out.

When Bryce Harper swung at and missed a 90 mile an hour cutter from the right hand of Cubs closer Wade Davis not long after Thursday night had given way to Friday morning, another Washington Nationals season came to an abrupt and what surely felt like a premature end. As Harper and his teammates headed for the home clubhouse at Nationals Park while Cubs players raced onto the field to celebrate their NLDS triumph over Washington, no one could blame Nats fans for feeling like they had once again been rooting for the Mudville Nine.

Since Harper’s Rookie of the Year season in 2012, Washington has won the NL East four times in six years. The team averaged more than 96 wins in those four campaigns, and even counting the two “down” years when they finished second in the division and missed the playoffs, the Nationals have averaged more than 92 wins over the last six years. This year Washington was the first team to secure a spot in the postseason, clinching the division less than a week after Labor Day. When the final out of the longest season was recorded, the standings showed the Nationals a whopping twenty games clear of the second place Miami Marlins.

All that regular season success has brought with it no shortage of individual honors. In addition to his rookie award, Harper was named the National League MVP two years ago, and both he and third baseman Anthony Rendon will likely appear on some best player ballots this year. Max Scherzer is the reigning NL Cy Young Award winner, and is thought to be locked in a tight race with the Dodgers Clayton Kershaw for this year’s honor. Fellow starter Stephen Strasburg will also receive Cy Young consideration. Rendon was last year’s NL Comeback Player of the Year, and this year’s award is likely to find its way to the other corner of the diamond, where first baseman Ryan Zimmerman has had a renaissance season. Washington skippers have also won a pair of Manager of the Year Awards during this run, with Davey Johnson honored in 2012 and the now unlamented Matt Williams winning in 2014; the latter proving that the voting members of the Baseball Writers Association don’t always get it right.

What Washington’s dominance over the 162-game schedule has not presaged is postseason success. When Harper went down swinging in Friday’s wee hours, it marked the fourth time in as many tries that the Nationals failed to advance beyond the divisional round. Fans in D.C. know the tale of woe all too well.

In 2012’s decisive Game Five, Washington jumped ahead of St. Louis 6-0 after just three innings, to the delight of the full house at Nationals Park. But the Cardinals pecked away, closing to 6-5 after the top of the 8th. Washington tacked on an insurance run in the bottom of the frame, and closer Drew Storen came on in the 9th to send the Nationals on to the NLCS. But after retiring two of the first three batters he faced, Storen imploded. Two walks and two singles later St. Louis had plated four runs, and led by the eventual final score of 9-7.

Two seasons later Storen was again the goat, this time in Game Two. Washington had dropped the first game of the series to visiting San Francisco, but looked ready to even the series behind a magnificent pitching performance by Jordan Zimmermann. With two outs in the 9th and after retiring twenty consecutive batters, Zimmermann walked Joe Panik. Manager Williams summoned Storen to protect the 1-0 lead. Instead he yielded a single and a double that tied the score. After 18 innings and nearly six and one-half hours of play, the Giants finally pushed across the go-ahead score. Down two games to none and heading west, the Nationals never recovered, losing in four games.

Last season the Division Series again stretched to its maximum, and the Nationals sad denouement again came in front of their frustrated fans. Washington led Los Angeles 1-0 going to the 7th inning. More than an hour later, after seven pitching changes, four pinch-hitters, two pinch-runners, and a double switch, the inning ended with six runs having crossed the plate. Four of the six scored in the top half, putting the Dodgers on top by the eventual final score of 4-3.

And now another year and another final Division Series loss at home. Thursday night’s game turned in the 5th inning, when the Cubs turned a 4-3 deficit into a 7-4 lead. Chicago managed just one well-hit ball in the inning, a double by Addison Russell. But around that blow the Cubs used an infield hit, a bloop single in front of two charging outfielders, a wild pitch, a throwing error by the catcher, catcher’s interference and a hit batsman to maximum effect. This time it was Washington trying desperately to rally through the late innings, but in the end coming up just short, with the 9-8 final.

The pill is especially bitter because over these six seasons, the six other teams that have played in three or more Division Series have all managed to advance at least once, and all but Boston have made multiple trips to the LCS. The Red Sox, Tigers, Cardinals, Giants and Cubs have also further advanced to at least one World Series, with Boston, San Francisco, and Chicago all winning championships. The Dodgers have the most Division Series appearances with five. While L.A., like Washington, hasn’t made it to the final round, the Dodgers have at least moved on to three League Championship Series, including the one in which they are now battling the Cubs.

The multiple disappointments and the often bizarre way that games have played out has left some fans wondering whether the Nationals are somehow jinxed. They aren’t of course, any more than the Red Sox were cursed by selling Babe Ruth to the Yankees or the Cubs by the ejection of Billy Sianis and his odiferous goat from Wrigley Field. Rather it is all just a sad reminder that no matter the talent on the field, the random nature of the Great Game always plays an outsized role in the short Division Series.

Of greater concern to the Washington faithful should be the very real possibility that the window for this version of their team is closing. Much was made of the team signing Strasburg to a seven-year deal, but that contract includes player opt-outs that he could exercise after either the 2019 or 2020 seasons. As good as Scherzer has been for Washington, he’ll turn 34 in the middle of next season, just a couple of months before the resurgent Zimmerman does the same. And of course, Harper is on track to test the free agent market after next year. He’s expected to command a record-setting contract that’s likely to be well beyond the reach of the Nationals.

As they have so often in recent seasons, the Nationals will gather in Florida for next year’s spring training as the early favorite to win their division. Should they go on to do so, they will open play in a fifth NLDS with a renewed sense of urgency, knowing that for this team and its fans, time is running out. Maybe, just maybe, in that potential series the gods of the Great Game will acknowledge that by now, they surely owe the Nationals one.

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