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As they say in the stock market, past performance is not indicative of future results, so this is not a prediction. But there is something eerily similar about the road the Washington Nationals are traveling versus the roadmap used by the Washington Capitals last year in winning the Stanley Cup.
The Nats, as much as I love them, are a flawed team. They have excellent talent at certain positions, but they’ve invested in that talent at the expense of the bullpen. Manager Davey Martinez – the kind of guy you pull for because he seems to be such a genuinely good guy – hasn’t been the greatest at pushing the right buttons with that flawed bullpen and the regular season reflected that with the team at one point being 19-31.
Even as they started winning, that trend never totally went away. Every 10 to 14 days, you’d turn off the television and think “there’s another one they should have won but blew in the last two innings.” Because of that, I think most Nats fans being honest with themselves would admit at one point during the season they didn’t think the team would make the playoffs. And if they did, they’d get beat in the wildcard game.
The Caps sort of did the same thing. From early January to early March in 2018, they were 10-10 over a 20-game stretch and didn’t look good. They’d lose 3 in a row, win two in a row, then lose two more in a row. Four of the losses during that stretch were in overtime, blowing leads in the final minute, then losing in OT (substitute bullpen for goalie and you’ve got the same deal). Since the team could never seem to get past the second round, many were saying on Twitter that the good news was this year, that wouldn’t happen. They’d just get eliminated in the first round and save us all the aggravation.
Then something gelled for the Caps, although many of us long-suffering fans didn’t really believe it. They ripped off 4 wins in a row, lost one, then won 5 more in a row. They went 12-3 to finish the regular season.
All well and good, but in the first round of the playoffs against Columbus, they lost the first two games – both in overtime – to fall behind 2-0. They were in double overtime in game 3, and we were all thinking “here it comes.”
But “it” didn’t.
The Caps somehow won, finished the series by winning 4 games in a row to advance, and the magical mystery Stanley Cup tour began. They’d have other tense moments – losing three in a row to Tampa Bay after winning the first 2 had me reaching for the Nexium frequently – but they always survived and advanced.
The Nats have done the same. They started September with a loss to the Mets, then showed the emotional meatgrinder they are capable of putting us all through by having a complete bullpen meltdown in the 9th to fall behind 10-4. They then scored 7 in the bottom of the 9th (all with only one out) to win 11-10 in one of the most miraculous comebacks I’ve ever seen.
How did the Nats then respond to such a great comeback? They lost the next four in a row. They would go 8-11 from September 2 until September 22 and while numerically it looked like the team would make it as a wildcard team, the notion they would go any farther than that one-game playoff would be seen by many as evidence you’d partaken of too many illegal substances.
But much like the Caps, they finished the regular season on fire. The Nats won 8 straight, the team averaged almost 7 runs a game and the bullpen came in during late innings and actually got people out. I kind of wondered who this team was and when did they steal those Washington Nationals jerseys.
Then came the wildcard, and any long-suffering Nats fan knows what the team does in big games: The bats go silent. Cy Young could pitch for the Nats and still lose in big games because the team would get 3 hits and score one run. Or less. If they did score runs, that would be a signal for the bullpen to fall apart in the late innings. It’s a tried and true formula for the Nats as even after seven years, Game 5 of the 2012 NLDS is still not allowed to be spoken about in my house.
So when the Nationals entered the bottom of the 8th inning of the wildcard trailing 3-1, it was no surprise. “At least I got to wear my Nats jersey one more time this year,” I thought before Juan Soto decided to say “the heck with all this” and drive in 3 runs to make it 4-3. Then Daniel Hudson came in, got a strikeout, gave up a single, then a foul popup out and a flyball out to deep center to end the game.
Bang. Zoom. I finally went to bed after a deciding Nats playoff game and I wasn’t disappointed. For the first time. Ever.
It was a feeling I could really get used to.
Much like that double overtime game for the Caps against Columbus that could have put the team down 3-0 and probably been the final nail in the coffin, the Nats one week ago today lost 10-4 to the Dodgers to trail in the series 2 games to 1 and be only one more loss from elimination.
But just like the Caps, it’s been déjà vu all over again, as the Nats have now ripped off 5 wins in a row, won the series with the Dodgers in Los Angeles and now have a 3-0 lead over the Cardinals.
How or why that’s happened I couldn’t tell you. But it’s happening folks. I don’t know if it will truly end up like what the Caps accomplished, but the signs are there. It’s no longer a dream. It’s a distinct possibility.
Just think. In only a matter of weeks, we could be seeing Anthony Rendon, Max Scherzer and Ryan Zimmerman, all swimming in the fountains on the streets of DC. And if that were to occur, I’ll bet a couple of Washington Capitals would dive in as well, particularly one whose last name rhymes with Ovechkin. Just to show them how it’s done.
You never know. Sometimes dreams - like they did last year with the Caps - do come true.