Maybe this isn’t the year the Nats win the World Series. Maybe the Redskins will go another 25 years without a Super Bowl. Maybe the Capitals will never, ever win a Stanley Cup. Okay, probably they won’t.
But eventually, one of these teams will go just a tiny bit further than they’ve gone over the past 20 years. Eventually, one of them will surprise us. The dumbest streak in sports — 68 combined Nats, Caps, Skins and Wizards seasons since a conference final, easily the longest drought of any North American city — will end at some point. Maybe it will happen Thursday night at Nationals Park. It’s possible. Right?
I mean, the very D.C.-est way this could go would be for Wednesday’s giddy heroism in Chicago to get drowned in a chaser of sorrow and self-pity. That’s the Capitals winning Game 6 in Pittsburgh in 2009, then getting blitzed at home in the deciding Game 7. It’s the Caps routing Pittsburgh in Game 6 in May, then falling at home in the deciding Game 7. It’s the Wizards winning Game 1 on the road in the second round of the 2014 playoffs, and the Wizards winning Game 1 on the road in the second round of the 2015 playoffs, and then losing both series, at home, in Game 6. It’s last winter’s schedule lining up perfectly for the Redskins, who then fell on their faces against an opponent with nothing on the line.
And it’s the Nats staying alive with maybe the biggest hit in franchise history on Oct. 11, 2012, and then having all their internal organs stomped, at home, on Oct 12. This time, the Nats stayed alive with maybe the biggest hit in franchise history on Oct. 11, 2017. And now they can move on, at home, on Oct. 12. Maybe it won’t happen now. But it will happen eventually.
The numbers are cruel and pointless. I know you’re not especially interested. But they’re also remarkable. These Washington sports teams have gone 3-12 in their past 15 chances to move on in the postseason at home. Three. And. Twelve. How is that possible?
Since the 1998 Stanley Cup Finals, these four teams have had 12 individual games that would have sent them into that conference finals round. They’ve lost all 12: one by the Wizards, two by the Redskins, three by the Nationals, and six by the Capitals. Four of those games happened within the last calendar year. That’s injected an even rawer brand of fatalism into many fans. But it’s not sustainable. It can’t go on forever.
And look, no one dreams of making the conference finals. Even writing about it like this is loser talk — or loser typing, at least. But at this point, I’m on board with loser talk. I’m on board with the most meager and basic of postseason triumphs. I’m on board with having a raucous, beer-soaked, regret-filled party late Thursday night — over, that’s right, a single playoff series win. The other version has gotten so stale. There’s really not much else to say, no new ways of telling the story. Everyone’s snickered at the “Caps on Grass” comments. The joke is old.
So maybe this time it’s set up perfectly, after every sentient being abandoned all hope sometime between Monday night and Wednesday morning. (Okay, yes, the Nats still have a surprisingly large cadre of unquenchable optimists. Good for them.) I can’t recall quite the level of hopelessness that poured out of Danny Rouhier this week on 106.7 The Fan — the team’s flagship station.
“Something is missing,” he said. “Something is incredibly wrong, and there’s a rotten core, and there’s nothing you can do about it. These are not bad people. These are great baseball players. … [But] they’re going to rip your heart out.”
He’s dramatic, but a good many of us have at least contemplated an anguished faith that things will go wrong. And yet we also know that badness is finite. So maybe Washington can end the silliness after first marinating in it: the national scorn about Stephen Strasburg and mold, the national jokes about soft athletes and poor PR messaging, a town that’s close to its breaking point, an opponent that just won the World Series and demands respect, the missing offense, the missing faith.
Maybe a team had to rub its naked torso up against the same old, brick wall — a brilliant regular season, an inexplicable playoff slump, a crushing loss or two — before finally crawling over the top. It hasn’t happened 12 times in a row. At some point, it will.
Wednesday evening, I took my daughter and a friend to a book signing at a D.C. public library, missing about the first 90 minutes of the game, which I instead followed on my phone. (It’s not like you need my thoughts about Strasburg’s change-up or when Adam Lind should come off the bench, and golly these games aren’t quick.) I don’t particularly have any rooting interest in this series, but my body was wracked with tension anyhow. I was wiping my palms on my pants about every three seconds. I think I lost at least one or two pounds via palm sweat. The librarians kept asking me the score. I ran into the fifth-grade son of some co-workers, who also wanted to know the score. Another grown-up skipped out on the reading and ran across the street to watch the game. I felt afflicted.
And I just kept wondering, sheesh, what would it be like if they actually won this series? What would the celebration be like? What would the relief be like? What would the next round be like? What would the World Series be like?
By the time I got home, I was too nervous to really function, so I kind of drank a bit more whisky than I intended, and then all those unforgettable things happened. Stephen Strasburg threw what might have been the best pitching game in franchise history if you consider the circumstances: the mold and the antibiotics and the scorn and the pressure and the domination. Taylor hit, at worst, the second-most memorable home run in franchise history. Charlie Slowes yelled so much that his voice cracked. The Cubs fans left. The Nats fans … well, they wondered.
I’ll be accused of cynicism, but within seconds of Taylor’s homer — which made the score 5-0 — I thought back to last year’s Caps, and that 5-0 lead they took in Game 6 against the Penguins, before everything went bad. Plenty of D.C. sports fans have internalized the same neuroses. That’s why they fear this deciding game will be like all the other deciding games: missed chances, bad luck, a deflated balloon, a throbbing pain, a wry grimace of disgust, a soft whoopee cushion of disappointment.
Maybe that’s what will happen, and I’ll write the same story I’ve written 73 times before. But eventually it will change. Eventually Washington will get way more excited about a trip to the conference finals than any city should ever get about a trip to the conference finals, and the celebration will be entirely warranted, and entirely happy, and entirely unhinged.
Maybe that will happen on Thursday. I guess I’ll watch to find out, anyhow.
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