The Washington Nationals Face Their Playoff Demons

The baggage of October failures is all around the Washington Nationals. It’s their own recent past, with Division Series losses in 2012, 2014 and 2016, all in situations where they either had the series by the throat or were the more talented team. You might say it’s an inherited gene—the Montreal Expos, the organizational forerunner of the Nats, had its issues with crushing ends to the season in 1979, 1980 and 1981.

And then there’s the postseason struggles of the manager. Dusty Baker is a terrific skipper who’s won everywhere he’s been, from the Giants to the Cubs to the Reds and now the Nats. His name is also on three memorable collapses—San Francisco in the 2002 World Series, Chicago in the 2003 NLCS and Cincinnati in the 2012 Division Series.

So is this finally the year for the Nationals and their leader? Presuming Bryce Harper comes back healthy for the playoffs, all the core pieces are in place. They have one of baseball’s great infields, with Ryan Zimmerman, Daniel Murphy and Anthony Rendon all producing steadily throughout the year at first, second and third base. Trea Turner, the speedy shortstop, did some extended DL time, but has been back and provides this offense with an additional dimension.

The rotation offers a top three of Max Scherzer, Gio Gonzales and Stephen Strasburg, all having excellent years. The depth presents a problem and Baker won’t be able to empty out a bullpen in the manner of, say a Terry Francona in Cleveland. But the Nationals have the starters to win playoff rounds the old-fashioned way—with horses, not using seven relievers a game.

You still need to have about three relievers you can count on though, and in that regard the success Washington has had with their summer trading moves are a big reason for optimism. Sean Doolittle has shored up the closer’s role, with 2.08 ERA. Brandon Kintzler, acquired from Minnesota, strengthened the setup area with a 2.66 ERA. Ryan Madson might be 36-years-old, but he’s turned back the clock to his glory days in Philadelphia with a buck-13 ERA.

Dolittle, Kintzler and Madson were all added on the fly by GM Mike Rizzo. Add to that the pleasant surprise of 34-year-old Matt Albers having the year of his life with a 1.60 ERA and the Nationals at least have a bullpen that won’t lose the postseason for them.

Winning it won’t exactly be easy. A matchup with the Chicago Cubs in the Division Series looks likely. The National League probably has three of the top four teams in baseball (including the Dodgers and Indians), and one of those teams will make a quick exit. The Nationals, their fan base, their manager and even their lineage have waited too long to be the one left on the side when the NLCS begins