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Natlessly We Roll Along

What’s red and white and available for dinner the rest of October? Your National League East Champion Washington Nationals, who I have to say aren’t doing a very good job of representing our division on the larger stage. As is their custom in this decade, they went to the NLDS. As is their more noted custom, they did not advance beyond the NLDS [1].

Not that many of us were rooting for them to carry the NL East banner ever upward, but c’mon, Nats. You’re making us look bad. We lost 92 games this year. We can make ourselves look bad without your help.

There doesn’t seem to be much inclination in baseball to get behind “our” champion if we are not involved in the playoffs. It’s a romantic notion that we would. NL EAST OR DECEASE! Or something of that nature. But it’s not like that. It’s not remotely like that.

Familiarity breeds so much contempt. Were you delighted for the Atlanta Braves when they were winning East after East? Did you Phlip for the Phillies in the midst of their divisional dynasty? I’d invoke the Marlins here, except they’ve yet to win a divisional title despite having socked away two world championships before their eleventh birthday. (Gads, the Marlins are weird.) It’s hard to recontextualize your enemy of six months after six months of active hostility. Nor does it much occur to you to try.

It’s not just the Nationals who’ve been bringing down the average. National League East champions are pretty lousy at going forward. Since 2002, most of them have lost their Division Series. The Braves are 0-for-5. The Nationals are 0-for-4. The Phillies, when they had a heyday, went 3-for-5. The Mets, however, played two and won two, in 2006 and 2015. Give us the right context, and we are selectively unbeatable.

Yet the Nationals’ contemptible familiarity is nevertheless familiar. Of all the teams to have entered this postseason, they’re the ones I knew best, so there was something compelling about their presence. Their players are well known in our circles. Daniel Murphy is estranged, but not so long ago one of us. Oliver Perez holds a special place in our gut. Ryan Zimmerman might as well be the name the David Wright brand is sold under in certain Middle Atlantic markets. We’d know Harper’s resting Bryce face anywhere. We’ve been adding “less” to “Werth” for a generation. We took pride in loudly declaring Harvey better than Strasburg. Scherzer’s eyes. Rendon’s flow. The Lobaton Galaxy of Stars.

I didn’t root for them, exactly, but I was prepared to deal with the idea that they’d be sticking around. And I thought they would be. The Cubs seemed very much like last year’s news, extras in somebody else’s narrative. When Washington went up by three runs early in Game Five, I thought the result was Nat accompli. Their near-death experience was Game Four at Wrigley, the whole Strasburg mold contretemps, wherein the pitcher suspected of being soft threw the bleep out of the ball for seven robust innings and Michael A. Taylor redeemed the whole effort with a grand slam in the gloaming off Wade Davis. That should do it for the Cubs dynasty, I thought. The two teams’ll take this thing back to Nats Park, we’ll make jokes about the last Metro pulling out before the last out and our nominal archrival — or as close as we have to one at present — will move on to Los Angeles where somebody would notice Murphy dueling Turner for the pennant.

But it didn’t happen that way. It never does for the Nationals. Four times in the NLDS in six years, four heartbreaking exits. Maybe not our hearts, but objectively horrifying to watch if you consult your heart a little. You feel sort of bad for certain players after a 9-8 loss like that which ended this postseason’s Washingtonian exercise in futility. Upon further microscopic review, you feel sort of bad for Dusty Baker, who you remember having it in for in 2000 when he managed the Giants and it was our job to snarl that the opposing manager was no Bobby V, but is otherwise considered one of the game’s all-time good guys. You feel bad for the fans who haven’t directly pissed you off or who haven’t gotten on the nerves of your Mets fan friends who live in and around DC and swear to you that, no kidding, Nats fans are the worst. You feel bad more in theory than reality, but the reality was right in front of you: another elimination loss wherein Washington falls ever so short ever so late and the train is pulling out of the Navy Yard station bound for the NLCS without them…again.

That’s pretty bad baseball reality.

Who’s talking Mets in the middle of the playoffs? Gary McDonald and I are on his wonderful podcast Mets Musings. Listen in here [2].