The Los Angeles Dodgers’ recent swoon has put a few things back in play for the Washington Nationals: the top overall seed, the chance to become a World Series front-runner, home-field advantage in the playoffs. A three-game sweep this weekend, and the rest of this season would be a sprint for all those honors. And if I’m a Nats fan, I would want to avoid all those things as aggressively as Ted Cruz should avoid the “like” button.
Because earning the top overall seed would just fuel the D.C. Sports Fear. Ditto with becoming a darling pick of the experts. Home-field advantage? That’s the surest way to surround a Washington team with an all-too-familiar feeling: gurgling dread.
But don’t you want a Game 7 at home? No thank you. The past 15 times the Caps, Nats, Redskins and Wizards have had a chance to advance in the playoffs at home, they’ve gone a collective 3-12. Yes, 3-12. And that’s not counting the Redskins’ collapse last January, in a win-and-in regular season finale at home.
I’m sort of joking here, but also sort of not. There’s real pressure in playing these agonizing games at home, especially when your home is pockmarked with scars. The past two times the Caps won a playoff series, it was on the road. The last time the Redskins won a playoff game, it was on the road. Two of the past three Wizards playoff clinchers have come on the road. In their brief playoff history, the Nats are 3-3 on the road — and 2-6 at home!
Which brings me to some recent conversations I’ve had with Thomas Boswell, who definitely knows more about sports than me, but possibly does not know as much about neuroses. I’ve been telling Boz that, for at least some fans, these upcoming playoffs will be conducted under a fog of fear, watched uneasily by Washingtonians who have pretty well convinced themselves that postseason contests are like shots of Jagermeister: They seem fun in theory, but always end in pain.
Boz manages to retain his wits. He has told me that the 2017 Nationals have nothing to do with the 2012 Nationals. (There won’t be more than five players from the 2012 playoff roster who participate this October, and no one’s going to be blasting “Take On Me” between innings.) He has told me that three playoff losses — each of which had its own extenuating circumstances, and two of which came in taut five-game series — do not a history of choking or disappointment make. And he has told me the most inarguable truth of all: Max Scherzer will not be thinking about Nick Bonino, Jaroslav Halak or Pat Verbeek when he takes the ball next month.
The Caps have possibly the most wrenching playoff history of any team in professional American sports. The Caps lose Game 7s with the same regularity that normal people lose their keys or their glasses. The Caps might as well introduce a new cocktail in Capital One Arena called Gut Punch, maybe a mixture of grain alcohol and human bile. The Nats aren’t the Caps, and it isn’t close.
Except I can’t convince myself that this is correct — and if I can’t, I’m guessing a lot of people in the stands next month will be presaging their future agony. If you were in the arena when the Caps fell behind in Game 7 this spring, you’ll never forget the feeling of dread that settled over the arena.
“Once we got down 1-0, you kind of almost felt it,” T.J. Oshie said after that loss. “The building kind of got quiet. We kind of got quiet.”
“You can feel it. Of course you can feel it,” Kevin Shattenkirk said of history’s weight, which spawns this quiet terror. “It’s everywhere surrounding this team. It’s media. It’s the fans. It’s the players.”
“You can feel it in the building. You feel it in the crowd. It’s in there,” GM Brian MacLellan said. “You tell me in that Game 7 that you couldn’t feel it? … And that’s the history in there. That’s in the fans, that’s in the past players. Even if you were there just for that game, you would feel it.”
Players usually tell you these things aren’t real, but the Caps are past that point. And Sean Doolittle and Howie Kendrick don’t own that history, but neither did Shattenkirk. That doesn’t make it any less real, not when it’s emanating from a decent portion of your supporters and hovering over your town. Washington has had too many brushes with success in recent years, too many lauded teams, too many similar endings, in front of too many of the same scarred fans. Take that particular show on the road.
In the course of an unrelated discussion, I recently mentioned to one of the newer members of the Nationals something about the D.C. Sports Fear: that local teams with glorious potential and expansive expectations inevitably will be struck down by either calamity or failure, usually in front of their home fans, who will be forced to turn their rally towels into impromptu barf bags.
This player’s response — and it’s not his fault, in any way — was enough to prompt visions of that ghastly villain, Kozmahalakolynyk.
“There’s a lot of new faces in here, guys that have no idea of the history, no idea of really the city,” this player said earnestly. “And they see it as we’re going out and playing every day and winning every day … so I don’t think that’s in anybody’s mind-set.”
It’s logical. It’s convincing. It’s inarguable. And also, I’ve now quoted Washington players and coaches delivering some version of that message 437 postseasons in a row.
A fan wrote to me recently, explaining that he had worn Nats hoodies to the past playoff washouts, and asking what he should wear this time around. I said he should wear a hoodie, because superstitions are stupid, and hoodies are great. But trying to advance in front of fans stricken by the D.C. Sports Fear? That’s no longer a mystical bit of nonsense. It’s kind of real.
Maybe the Nats will win at home this fall. Of course they could still lose on the road. Some optimists will call this argument silly and counterproductive. And no, I’m not suggesting they lay down against the Dodgers this weekend. If I cared about their success, though, I sure wouldn’t be upset if they finished five games back of L.A.
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