This is not their first experience with defeat in the NLDS, as you may know. In fact, they’ve never so much as reached the NLCS during their 12 years in Washington. Of course, to be fair, they have participated in just four different postseasons since their move.
All four of those have ended in disaster for teams that played extraordinarily well in the regular season. It’s hard to pretend like there isn’t something happening here, but it could truly be the outcomes constantly favoring their opponents. Washington has not lost the same way in any two postseasons, after all, and it begs the question of whether there are any ways to lose remaining. Let’s take a look at their history.
In 2012 they made the postseason on the backs of their two number one picks: Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper (Harper having been drafted two years earlier at the ripe age of 19). Both Strasburg and Harper were chosen to participate in the All-Star Game, and the Nationals had a tremendously successful 98-64 season which won them the NL East.
The postseason presented them with the defending World Champion Cardinals fresh off their wild run in 2011. The Nationals were the young team on the cusp of becoming something good, and the Cardinals were at the tail end of a dominant run that lasted nearly a decade. Washington was the better team by regular season record, but the Cardinals had their mysterious postseason powers and experience on their side. Washington was also without its top pitcher in Strasburg, who had been shut down for the season due to (potential) injury and fatigue concerns stemming from a recent Tommy John surgery. The teams went back and forth during the short series and ultimately found themselves in a deciding Game 5.
Game 5 is no friend of the Washington Nationals. They grabbed an early lead, but despite having their best starter on the mound, that lead was squandered in the subsequent eight innings. With a narrow one-run lead, the ninth inning dawned. Nationals closer, Drew Storen, was on the mound, but that didn’t stop the Cardinals from rallying for four runs when they were down to their final out. Washington was held silent in the bottom half of the inning, and their hope of reaching the NLCS was destroyed. But they were a young team facing a group of veterans that inexplicably found ways to win in the postseason. Surely things would get better for them in the following years. Things did not, however, get better.
Washington next reached the postseason in 2014, where they were once again playing the Wild Card team. It was a tremendous advantage, playing three of the five games at home against a team that should have been below their talent level. Instead they quickly fell in a 2-0 hole that they could never dig themselves out of. They lost the series in four to the Giants, who ultimately ended up winning the World Series. It was the worst they have been beaten, but it was the least gut-wrenching.
In 2016 it was the Dodgers in the opposing dugout. They had Clayton Kershaw on their side, but there were plenty of gaps that could have been exploited. The Nationals had the better regular season record and this time it was they who jumped out to a 2-1 series lead. With their backs against the wall in Game 4, the Dodgers threw Kershaw, who struggled only in the eyes of those who merely glanced at the box score. Kershaw’s dominance and the Dodgers offense pushed the series to a winner-take-all Game 5.
With the ghosts of playoffs past merely an afterthought, the Nationals coasted through the first half of the game. They had Max Scherzer on the mound dominating the Dodgers offense and a 1-0 lead on the board. That is, until the very same Scherzer gave up a tying home run to Joc Pederson. The game was suddenly different, and Washington quickly watched three more runs cross the plate that inning. They did fight back, but as soon as they pushed two runs across they saw Kenley Jansen enter the game. Jansen shut them down until he ran out of gas in the ninth. The Dodgers, just a single hit away from losing, turned to Kershaw on just a single day’s rest. The ace handled Daniel Murphy and Wilmer Difo with ease, and the Nationals were once again sent packing before even reaching a seven-game series.
The losses of years past were difficult, of course, each of them bringing new challenges to different teams that still could not find a way to get past the same obstacle. The 2017 NLDS was no different. It brought challenges, deficits, and an incredibly worthy opponent.
Washington once again found itself in Game 5, just nine innings away from clawing the 900-pound monkey off their back. Instead they were met with yet another unique heartbreak. It was not a 9th inning lead blown, a series lost before Game 5 could even be played, or an unstoppable bullpen force after an early lead was thrown away. No, this time was different. This was the one where their former ace, who had just pitched well days before, couldn’t make it past the third inning. It was the one where their current ace found himself on the other side of tremendously bad luck with two outs in the inning. It was the one where a foot slipped off a base. It was the one where they couldn’t take advantage of an exhausted pitcher on the mound. It was the most heartbreaking of them all.
So here the Nationals sit, losers of four different NLDS matchups in the last six seasons. They are likely going to find themselves in a similar starting position next year, facing a worthy opponent in the first round of the postseason. The narrative has been crafted, and curses are being formulated. Some will say the Nationals cannot win a playoff series, but I say how many ways are left for them to lose? They have exhausted all possibilities, traversed the bad luck gauntlet, and there seems to be no place to go but up. Maybe they’re doomed or cursed, but we’ve all seen enough curses broken to know that hope is not yet lost.