Stephen Strasburg, right, and Gio Gonzalez are two of three Washington starters with an ERA under 3.00. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

The elephant in the room is casting a shadow over the Nationals’ playoff hopes. Players insist every year is a new beginning, but October disappointments seem to linger in Washington. This year, the Nats were the first MLB team to clinch a division title; they finished one win shy of the best record in team history; they have home-field advantage over the Cubs. But they’ve also never won a playoff series. For the optimist in all of us, here are five reasons this fall could be different.

Three under 3

Eight MLB starting pitchers posted an ERA under 3.00 this year, and Washington has three of them: Max Scherzer (2.51), Stephen Strasburg (2.52) and GIo Gonzalez (2.96). Scherzer, the perennial Cy Young candidate, gave up five runs in 12 innings while concealing a stress fracture in his pitching hand vs. the Dodgers in last year’s NLDS. He’s dealing with a tweaked hamstring but is capable of taking over a series. Scherzer is the intimidator, but Strasburg, who was named the Game 1 starter, could loom the largest. Injuries have limited him to just one playoff start, a loss to the 2014 Giants in which he allowed one earned run. The Nats have won nine of Strasburg’s last 10 starts, during which he had a 0.86 ERA.


Sean Doolittle was part of a Nationals bullpen that blew just three saves in the second half of the season.
(Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

No bullpen baggage

Entering the season, all critics had to do to pillory the Nats’ potential was point to the bullpen. In the first half of the season, Washington was tied for the sixth-most blown saves (14) in baseball. But GM Mike Rizzo worked his magic again, swinging trades for three impact relievers. Ryan Madson — who’s won two World Series and has appeared in 42 playoff games — Sean Doolittle and Brandon Kintzler appear poised to change the bullpen’s October reputation. With those three in the fold, the Nats had an MLB-low three blown saves in the second half of the season. According to FanGraphs, after the All-Star break the Nationals tied the Rockies for the best bullpen WAR (3.4) in the big leagues.


Ryan Zimmerman stayed healthy all year and hit .303 with 36 homers and 108 RBIs. (John McDonnell / The Washington Post)

Closing window for vets

When Jayson Werth arrived in 2011, he promised to establish a winning culture, and that’s what he did. The Nats went 80-81 in his first year with the club. In the ensuing six seasons, the team won 57 percent of its games and captured four division titles. Werth, 38, is in the final year of his contract and isn’t assured a place on next year’s roster. Winning a division series — let alone the World Series — is the last thing he has to achieve here. Speaking of franchise cornerstones, what are the chances Washington will get another season like this from Ryan Zimmerman? The first draft pick in Nationals history finished the regular season ranked in the top 13 in the NL in batting average (.303), home runs (36) and RBIs (108).


Adam Lind tied for the MLB-lead with four pinch-hit homers this year. (John Bazemore/AP)

Starters in reserve

The Nats signed veteran Adam Lind in February to beef up the bench, but what he delivered turned out to be exceptional. Lind appeared in 116 games with 30 starts at first and another 25 as a makeshift left fielder. He clobbered four pinch-hit homers, tied for the MLB lead in that category and more than any Nationals player had hit in a career, let alone a season. In late July, the Nationals acquired experienced utility man Howie Kendrick, who has logged at-bats in 30 postseason games. Kendrick has hit .293 in 52 games with Washington. Infielder Wilmer Difo, who also played some emergency innings in the outfield, hit .343 over July and August, when Trea Turner missed time with a broken wrist.


Trea Turner’s speed is a huge asset for a Washington lineup that has the second-best batting average in the big leagues with runners in scoring position. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

The Turner effect

In June, Trea Turner’s speed on the bases cost Cubs catcher Miguel Montero a job. Turner had four of Washington’s seven steals against Chicago, Montero mouthed off about how the steals were pitcher Jake Arrieta’s fault, and the Cubs designated Montero for assignment the next day. That’s just one illustration of how Turner causes problems. In his last 30 games, Turner hit .297 with an .897 OPS. He finished the regular season with 46 stolen bases, third in the majors, despite playing in just 98 games. This year the Nats had the second-best average in the bigs with runners in scoring position (.290). Turner’s speed increases scoring chances, and a deep lineup can cash in when he starts rallies.

…And why more playoff failure is possible

Harper’s recovery time

Bryce Harper squeezed in five games upon his return from knee and calf injuries, and went 3-for-18 while searching for the swing that made him an MVP candidate before he slipped on a wet base. Harper was reportedly nagged by injuries last year and hit .235 with only one RBI in five NLDS games against the Dodgers.

Scherzer’s hamstring

Speaking of injured superstars, only Max Scherzer knows how impaired his tweaked hamstring is. Scherzer pitched through a stress fracture in his knuckle last year against the Dodgers. He gave up four runs — and two homers — to take a Game 1 loss. All signs Thursday pointed to the ace starting Game 3 in Chicago.

Psychology

Washington’s sports teams have reminded us many times that this city can’t have nice things. Players like Sammy Solis, who gave up a go-ahead run in Game 5 of the NLDS last year, will be thinking about that. The Cubs ended a 108-year title drought last year. They’re hot, too, with an MLB-best 423 runs in the second half.