By Matthew Jacobson (@MJacobson12)
I’ve been a fan of the Washington Nationals since day one of their existence. I have my ticket from the first Nats game I attended (July 4, 2005 against the Mets) taped to the wall of my bedroom. I have merchandise and memorabilia just about everywhere in my apartment here at the University of Maryland. I remember attending a game against the Phillies in 2012 where my friend and I started a “Vamos, Ramos” chant in section 101 as the former Nats catcher hit a walk-off single in the bottom of the 12th inning. I remember being down the first base line as Bryce Harper, who would later be the unanimous MVP of the National League, crushed a walk-off home run against the Braves in early May of 2015. I remember being at the now infamous “Kiss my Ass” game last season where Jayson Werth walked off the eventual World Series Champion Chicago Cubs. I remember running around my kitchen screaming like a madman as 4 years before Jayson Werth told his haters to place their lips on his posterior, he walked off the Cardinals to save the Nationals and send the 2012 NLDS to a game 5.
I also remember being at that game 5 and watching a team with so much potential melt down at a crucial juncture not only of their season, but the franchise’s existence. I remember dropping to my knees in 2014 as Aaron Barrett’s pitch got through Wilson Ramos, allowing the Giants to take a late lead in game 4 of the NLDS, one they would not relinquish en route to sending the Nationals packing. I remember my stomach sinking as Freddie Freeman hit a walk-off home run in 2013 to eliminate the Nationals from postseason contention. And the Mets. Oh, I remember the Mets. All the crap their fans talk about “oh the Nats have never won a playoff series.” A team that was loaded had added Max Scherzer, prompting Bryce Harper to ask about the whereabouts of his World Series ring, only to see the God Damned New York Mets catch lightning in a bottle (that lightning has since signed a contract with the Washington Nationals) and very nearly ride it to a World Series title. I remember the sigh of relief I experience as the Mets lost the 2015 World Series, realizing that all they would have to show for running three elite arms into the ground is an NL pennant.
The 2015 offseason seemed to be a continuation of the 2015 season, where the team melted down and appeared to be in a tailspin. Jonathan Papelbon was still employed by the team. Matt Williams had shown the world that he did not have the managing chops to take this team all the way. Even worse, he constantly stuck up for Papelbon, claiming over and over again that “he’s our closer.” Papelbon physically assaulted Bryce Harper in a meaningless game at the end of the season, and Williams’ inaction alienated those who had been in the clubhouse long before Williams and Papelbon came to DC.
The Lerners sent Williams packing at the end of the 2015 season, and got Bud Black under contract to be their next manager! And then they didn’t. And then they scrambled to get Dusty Baker, who warranted or not carries a certain reputation regarding young arms and lineup construction, much to the chagrin of self-proclaimed DC sports experts who may or may not host a certain radio show in this town. The whole debacle seemed to show that the Nationals were beginning to implode, not to mention that Bryce Harper, arguably the biggest sports star in this town, would be three years away from unrestricted free agency. They wouldn’t pay Black, and they almost wouldn’t pay Baker (they still might not pay Baker despite back-to-back division titles). A notably stingy ownership group who had no problem paying out the wazoo for free agents (210 million for Max Scherzer, 126 million for Jayson Werth, even 36 million for Daniel Murphy) would not pay other members of their staff adequately.
The Nationals lost out on free agent after free agent after free agent that offseason, compiling misery from a fanbase that was already preparing for the doomsday scenario. Jason Heyward took less money to play for the Cubs, as did Ben Zobrist. Yoenis Cespedes took less money and a different money structure to return to the Mets, where he had thrust himself into MVP contention in the second half of the 2015 season. Even this past offseason, when the Nationals so obviously and desperately needed help in the bullpen, the likes of Kenley Jansen, Mark Melancon, and Aroldis Chapman all said no to the Nationals. An organization that was seen as the future of the league and on the rise in 2012 was now, just 4 years later, considered cancerous.
And now, two years removed from that disastrous 2015 offseason, here we are. Two division titles later, the Nationals are yet again seen as one of the best organizations in baseball. Yet, the team, those work within the organization, and its fans, are unsatisfied. Despite winning back-to-back division titles for the first time in their existence, the cloud of past playoff failures has loomed over the metaphorical head of this organization since that game 5 in 2012. And with the defending champs in this year’s NLDS, it doesn’t appear to be getting easier.
I’m not going to make any predictions for the outcome of this series because I simply do not know how it’s going to end. Since 2012, the Nationals have won the second most games in baseball, but have nothing really to show for it. Max Scherzer threw two no-hitters en route to a Cy Young award in 2015. Bryce Harper was unanimously elected MVP that same year, but the Nationals had their worst win-loss record since 2011 and missed the playoffs a year removed from having the best record in the NL. This franchise has experienced so many incredible highs, and the progress that it has made in its now 12-year existence is staggering, and yet, in its biggest moments, they falter. Game 5 in 2012, the late innings of game 4 in 2014. Game 5 just last year. This team has the chance to flip the script and end the 23-year title drought that has sucked the life and mojo out of this incredibly passionate city.
Winning four division titles in six years is quite the accomplishment (with three different managers nonetheless). It shows a level of dominance that is rarely achieved in the salary-cap era of sports. But for this Nationals team to truly realize their potential, to come full circle, and to bring a little bit of joy to this city that needs even just a smidgeon of it, they cannot falter in another big moment. Bryce Harper and Daniel Murphy won’t be here after next year. Max Scherzer won’t be appointment television forever. Stephen Strasburg might get hurt again. Gio Gonzalez’s magical season might just hit midnight in the fourth inning of game 2. The Bullpen, something that is a legitimate strength heading into October for the first time in Nationals’ history, might channel the bullpen of playoff’s past. It could all go to shit, we could get swept, and end the season with our tails between our legs, once again thinking of what could have been.
But what if it doesn’t?
Maybe, just maybe, things will actually go right for a DC team in the playoffs. We’ve been so used to disappointment in this region for now 24 excruciating years. I got to experience how incredible a title is this past May, as Maryland Men’s Lacrosse ended their 42-year title drought one year after losing the title game in overtime. I’ve tasted the champagne during a championship celebration, and believe me it was worth the heartbreak of the prior year. The Nats have had so many of these awful moments in Octobers prior. I like to think that they’ve learned from them, especially last year being a base hit away from potentially winning the series against the Dodgers. This Nationals team may not be the most talented team I’ve ever seen, but you’d be hard-pressed to say that it isn’t the most complete. Offense, defense, pitching, and the law firm of Kintzler, Madson, and Doolittle to close out important games. This team has the ingredients to do it, it’s just a matter of forgetting about the past, overcoming the mental hurdles that may be in the way, especially for those players who have been on the team since 2011 and experienced this heartbreak first hand.
It won’t be easy; the Cubs are the defending champions for a reason, and they fought tooth and nail to get back into the postseason, especially considering the way they started their season. They bring back their core pieces and look poised for another deep postseason run. The only thing in their way? Your Washington Nationals.
I have no expectations for this series. All I know is that I’m gonna drink a lot of beer, and root root root for the Nationals. And if they don’t win, it’ll be a shame.