By Andrew Kahn
Take aim at a dartboard of the likely playoff teams, and you’re more likely than not to hit a franchise that begets pity. The Indians have the longest championship drought (68 years) in sports. The Astros were born in 1962 and have never won it all. The Rockies aren’t as old (they started in 1993) but have also never won. The Twins have not been to the playoffs since 2010 and haven’t reached the World Series since ’91. The Dodgers have failed to reach the World Series in their last 10 playoff appearances, an MLB record.
Then there’s the Washington Nationals, a franchise with a unique combination of historical struggles and recent heartbreak. They came about in 1969, as the Montreal Expos, and made the playoffs just once through 2011, never reaching the World Series. The Nationals have gone to the playoffs three times in the last five years but have yet to win a series. Despite several other teams getting more recognition—the Dodgers have the best record in baseball, Cleveland recently won 22 straight games, and the Astros started the year 42-16—Washington looks dangerous.
That wasn’t necessarily the case on August 12. The Nats, who took control of the National League East two weeks into the season and haven’t looked back, watched as Bryce Harper left the game with a knee injury. There were concerns he’d be done for the season, but he returned on Tuesday.
Harper is The Franchise. His Rookie of the Year campaign, in 2012, was Washington’s first winning season since ’96. The Nationals made the playoffs and pushed St. Louis to five games. Harper didn’t hit much in that series but had a triple and homer in his first two at-bats of Game 5. It was all forgotten when the Cardinals scored four in the ninth to end Washington’s season.
Harper’s mound equivalent, Stephen Strasburg, sat out that series due to an innings limit. He’s only pitched in one playoff game—in 2014, when the Nats lost to the Giants three games to one, losing every game by one run, including one that lasted 18 innings. He was injured last year when Washington lost a five-game series to the Dodgers; once again each defeat was by just one run.
The Dodgers will enter the playoffs as the favorites to reach the World Series. Washington went 3-3 against them. They were 4-3 against the defending-champion Cubs, their NLDS opponent. The Nationals’ starting rotation could give them an edge against either foe. Max Scherzer, Strasburg, and Gio Gonzalez are 2-3-4 (behind Clayton Kershaw) in the National League in ERA. The bullpen got a huge boost through deadline deals for three relievers, including closer Sean Doolittle.
Offensively, Daniel Murphy (.315 batting average), Ryan Zimmerman (34 homers), and Anthony Rendon (.401 on-base percentage) have helped Washington score the second-most runs in the NL. Harper is back just in time.
Of course, baseball’s postseason is cruel. Some of the elements that make for a successful regular season—like the back end of the rotation and a good bench—don’t mean much in a short playoff series. The very limited sample size can turn a superstar like Harper into a non-contributor.
The same problems that doomed the Nationals these past few years, including plain old bad luck, could cost them again. The franchise can only hope they don’t. Harper is a free agent after next year. Any pitcher’s arm, but particularly Strasburg’s, is fragile. The Nationals drafted the duo with consecutive No. 1 overall picks in 2010 and 2011. They’ve been as good as advertised and Washington has added high-quality pieces around them. And yet, the franchise does not have a postseason series victory to show for it. The 2017 playoffs start Tuesday.
Andrew Kahn is a regular contributor to CBS Local. He writes about baseball and other sports at andrewjkahn.com and you can find his Scoop and Score podcast on iTunes. Email him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter at @AndrewKahn