August 29, 2014

Division title ushers in new era of Washington baseball for generations of fans

They used to say that Washington was “First in war, first in peace, last in the American League.” From 1934 until 1971, that was pretty much the truth. After their last appearance in the World Series in 1933, rarely did the original Senators finish higher than sixth in the eight-team league. The expansion Senators were even worse, finishing last or next-to-last in 10 of their 11 years of existence. Those old Senators teams were so bad, they wrote a play and movie about how they’d have to sell their souls to the devil in order to win.

A bad team is better than no team, though, which is what the Nation’s Capital had for 34 years.

The current team that resides in the District originated in Montreal, moving to the American capital in 2005. There’s not much winning history there to hang a hat on either. Their best shot at post-season glory was snuffed by the work stoppage in 1994, when a team that was 74-40 was shut down, potentially causing the ultimate ruin of baseball in the beautiful Quebec Province.

The Expos suffered the ignominy of having their owner abandon them, then were forced — under the stewardship of Major League Baseball — to play half their home games in Puerto Rico. They weren’t allowed to make call-ups to bolster the roster when they threatened to compete, and in a last-grasp effort to be competitive, under the very real threat of contraction they traded all their best young prospects for one player to maybe achieve one last hurrah for les habitants du Montreal.

It didn’t work.

The Expos team that moved to D.C. was a band of fading “stars”, journeymen, rejects, and never-weres. Though competitive in the first half of the season in their new surroundings and the adrenaline of having a home and fans, they quickly faded and finished in their accustomed place in the standings. The next few seasons that followed were hide-your-eyes ugly. Poor play, mis-management, scandal, even misspellings on the uniforms made the Washington Nationals the laughingstock of baseball.

All that changed Monday night, when this year’s version found out their 96 wins — earned over the course of 159 games — was enough to clinch the National League Eastern Division Championship.

Some may think that this team is competing a year early. They were a darling pick in the pre-season to battle for a wild card slot in the N.L. this season, but very few — including those that follow this team the closest — figured they would win more than 85 games or so. It’s been assumed all along that the team’s ace, Stephen Strasburg, would be shut down around Labor Day, and that did turn out to be the case. The offense was built on sluggers with low on base percentages, and the pitching staff, including the bullpen, was very young.

What happened, though, is that the pitching staff dominated early and continued all season long. The hitting, which struggled in the first half of the season due largely to injuries to Ryan Zimmerman and Michael Morse, came around once everyone got healthy, Jayson Werth was inserted into the leadoff spot, Ian Desmond moved down into a run-producing position… and the arrival of one of the most hyped — and most talented — prospects in the history of the game. Bryce Harper’s arrival in late April might have been earlier than anyone, including Mike Rizzo, anticipated, but it was the precise catalyst this team needed as they started to realize that they had enough talent to compete with any team in the National League.

The rest, as they say, is history.

The champagne celebration in the clubhouse and field in front of the Nats dugout last night was more than baseball players celebrating achievement on the field. It was a catharsis. Maybe the players themselves don’t really understand how. Their view is — must be — more myopic, still on the matter at hand. To a man Monday night, they all talked about the work left to be done.

But to those in the organization that lived through the 100-loss seasons, the handful that called RFK home, the very few that spilt home games in Montreal and San Juan, the generation of Washingtonians that had no baseball to call their own, the previous generations that had two separate teams ripped from them by insidious ownerships.. they all know what last night meant.

You can’t count on competing for the playoffs or the World Series every year. This team is built better than most to be competitive for several seasons, but you never know. A key injury here, a bad bounce there, you just never know. Every baseball fan in the District — and there are many more today than there were even yesterday — hopes that the Nats can repeat that champagne celebration again in a few weeks and many more times in the foreseeable future. But if that’s the only one we ever see in this generation, it was awfully sweet.

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Dave Nichols is Editor-in-Chief of District Sports Page. He is credentialed to cover the Nats and the Caps, and previously wrote Nats News Network and Caps News Network. Dave’s first sports hero was Bobby Dandridge. Follow Dave’s Nationals coverage on Twitter @NationalsDSP.

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