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The Nationals Need to Overcome Injuries — and Fate

Washington is banged up heading into the NLDS, but its bigger problem might be defeating its postseason demons

Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

When does a run of bad luck become a curse? Not just luck — bad luck piled on bad decision piled on OK decision piled on seemingly good decision piled on oh my God, is he choking Bryce Harper in the dugout? How many things had to happen at Wrigley Field — how many years of missed playoff berths, how many trophy cabinets left empty — before someone said, Hey, remember that crazy guy with the goat …?

I ask because things in Washington: They haven’t been good. Or rather, in the 11 years that the Nationals have played baseball in the District, they have sometimes been very good — and then found a way of becoming bad, suddenly and horribly and catastrophically. As the Nats prepare to face the Dodgers in the NLDS — which is to say, as they wobble up to the tight rope one more time, unicycle squeaking and Teddy and Abe doing pirouettes on either shoulder — is this the year that we are spared seeing them splattered before our eyes? And if it isn’t — if the Nationals go home early again this year, and especially if they do so in crushing fashion — at what point do we begin to consider the possibility that this franchise might be cursed?

Hi — hello! — you there, the one already scrolling down to get to the comment section: Let me tell you that I know. Of course 11 title-less years pales in comparison to the woes of some of this postseason’s other contenders, perhaps including the Dodgers, who have six championships under their belt but have not advanced to the World Series since 1988. It is early yet in Washington; a less superstitious person might call for decades more heartbreak before entertaining the negative intervention of fate. To which I say: Go hang out with the other boring, reasonable grown-ups elsewhere and talk about your malfunctioning printer or whatever. The rest of us will be right here clutching our plastic pearl giveaways.

Let’s consider some of the recent miseries of Nats-dom. Before this season, the team had made the playoffs twice in the past four years. In 2012, the Nationals lost to St. Louis in an agonizing Game 5 of the NLDS, allowing four runs in the top of the ninth inning and blowing a game that they at one point led 6–0. Two years later, the Nats were the best regular-season team in the National League and went on to lose to the frankly-not-very-good-but-even-year-devil-magicked Giants in the NLDS, a series that featured a bananas 18-inning Game 2 that San Francisco didn’t so much win as force the Nationals to lose. Last year was when justice was finally going to be served: Everybody and their mother had Washington winning it all. Instead, just about everything that could go wrong did, and the team went 83–79 and missed the postseason entirely. You can make the case that this run of bad luck dates all the way back to the days when the Nationals were the Expos or when the D.C. baseball team was the Senators, one long train of busted elbows and blown calls and managerial mistakes and pure old bad luck.

The Nationals stride into this year’s NLDS having won the NL East by a comfy eight games; the team has a new star in the form of Trea Turner, who was called up for good in July and proceeded to bat .342, tying for seventh in the majors in stolen bases (33) despite his abbreviated season.

Wilson Ramos (Getty Images)
Wilson Ramos (Getty Images)

And yet. The Nationals have had a remarkably bad run of late-season injuries, losing catcher Wilson Ramos, who was batting .307 with 22 home runs, to a torn ACL in his right knee last month. He’ll most likely be replaced by José Lobaton, who has hit a combined .223 with eight homers in the three years he’s been with the team. Daniel Murphy and Harper are both coming back from injuries; Murphy enjoyed the best season of his career before [very serious face] straining his buttocks in September. Harper, meanwhile, has scarcely looked like himself all year, hitting just .243 with 24 home runs. Ryan Zimmerman and Jayson Werth have struggled of late, while Stephen Strasburg, out with a strained flexor mass in his right arm, will not play at least through the NLDS. Watching the Nationals can feel an awful lot like watching Final Destination: What’s going to go wrong now? Who’s next on the list? Will a traveling cloud of dust from Max Scherzer’s rosin bag make an usher sneeze, leading her to lean on the fence and triggering a complex, kettle corn–fueled chain reaction that ends in an errant nacho helmet flying from the upper decks and straight into Scherzer’s right hand?

Maybe it will all be OK: Murphy is (probably) coming back, Turner continues to dazzle, and Harper’s bat might still come alive. Tanner Roark ranks fourth among NL pitchers in WAR, Mark Melancon has thrived as the closer since coming over from the Pirates before the trade deadline, and the combination of Stephen Drew/Wilmer Difo shouldn’t have to play that much. And the Dodgers, after all, can’t hit lefties — wait, what did you say about left-handed pitchers in the Nats bullpen?

Ah. I see.