WASHINGTON – A curse has tormented sports fans in Washington since its NFL football franchise’s Super Bowl victory in 1992 – but baseball fans in the nation’s capital have suffered for even longer.
Washington hasn’t seen a World Series championship since 1924. It didn’t help that the city had no baseball team from 1972 until the arrival of the Nationals in 2005. The Nats have made the playoffs three times each time with home-field advantage in the divisional series, only to squander each opportunity.
Their 89-57 record as of Sept. 15 puts them just 5.5 games behind the Los Angeles Dodgers for the National League’s top spot, despite facing a 14-game deficit less than three weeks ago. With Los Angeles reeling and coming into town this weekend, Washington could make serious headway in obtaining home-field advantage once again throughout the playoffs.
This year, however, some Nationals fans believe their team is poised to come away with more than just the participation trophies they earned in 2012, 2014 and 2016.
Sally Adams is a 64-year-old St. Louis native who has lived in northern Virginia for 30 years, and has since become a Nationals fan. She said seeing her new team lose to her childhood Cardinals in 2012 spurred her to continue buying tickets.
“I think this is the year,” Adams said. “They have had all the tools…They have to do it this year. There would be no excuses if they can’t move forward. I know it’s a game, but c’mon.”
Barring a late-season injury, the Nationals will have Stephen Strasburg, who has only pitched in one postseason game in his career because of a controversial innings limit in 2012 and an elbow injury last year.
Strasburg’s presence will be a welcome one. He joins Max Scherzer and Gio Gonzalez in the top four in the league in opponent batting average against and top 10 in left-on-base percentage.
Though it’s unclear when Bryce Harper will return, the Nationals have thrived in his absence, and could still very well be an October threat without him.
Even without Harper’s bat for 39 games, the Nationals remain tied for 5th in the league with a wRC+ of 101, their best such mark in their four division title years. The Dodgers, meanwhile, are fourth in the league with a mark of 104. wRC+, according to mlb.com, is a variation of Runs Created that adjusts “to account for important external factors — like ballpark or era.”
Harper, who has been sidelined since Aug. 13 with a knee injury, has posted MVP-caliber splits this season (.326 BA/29 HR/87 RBI), but Washington has still mustered an 18-11 record in his absence.
It’s that depth that has 58-year-old season-ticket holder Chuck Workman excited.
“These guys just never seem to give up, no matter who they put in,” Workman said. “And you just get the feeling – every game when I’m sitting in there I get the feeling they’re going to win. If they’re down, they’re gonna win.”
Lifelong Washington baseball fan Vyron Johnson also expressed optimism about the Nats’ playoff chances, even in the face of Harper’s uncertain status, citing the team’s improved bullpen.
In the first half of the season, Washington’s relievers ranked 29th in the league in Fielding Independent Pitching, a pitching metric that aims to diminish a defense’s impact on a pitcher’s season. But since the All-Star game, the Nats have been fifth-best in that category, according to FanGraphs.
Fielding Independent Pitching values high strikeout rates, and is most negatively affected by walks and home runs surrendered.
Given the Dodgers’ recent slide, the National League suddenly appears up for grabs, and this weekend could reveal much about the Nationals’ chances to win the pennant.
Johnson, 65, said he expects the Dodgers series to have a playoff feel to it and for the D.C. faithful to make their voices heard in Nationals Park this weekend. He said that in past seasons, Nationals fans could hardly be heard over the roars of fans cheering for opposing teams.
Now? “I think we’re drowning them out,” Johnson said with a smile.
Johnson predicted that if the Nationals were to win the World Series, Washington residents will “party all year long like (Chicago) did” following the Cubs’ World Series victory last year.
You know what they say…party like it’s 1924.