Marty Niland: Nats’ historic run of winning seasons is at risk

Sunday night’s walk-off loss to the Cubs might have been a crushing moment for the Nationals and their fans, a potential gut punch to the season and possibly a way of baseball life that fans may have taken for granted.

By surrendering a two-out, two-strike grand slam in the bottom of the ninth, a team that’s already on the fringe of the postseason race found another way to lose and is now just two games over .500 at 60-58. At risk over the rest of the season are not only back-to-back division titles, but something even more important in the larger context of baseball in the nation’s capital - a run of six successive winning seasons.

This was pointed out a year ago by the late John McNamara, an editor and reporter at the Annapolis Capital Gazette who was killed in the June 28 mass shooting at the newspaper’s office. However, it bears repeating and expounding upon: The current Nationals team has put together the longest sustained run of success in the history of the franchise and of Washington, D.C. baseball.

The Montreal Expos’ first winning season was in 1979, when they went 95-65, and they put together four more after that, including the strike-shortened 1981 campaign, when they went 60-48 and made their only postseason appearance.

After that, the Expos had a run of three winning seasons in a row from 1992- 94, including another season abbreviated by a work stoppage, before moving to Washington in 2005.

The original Senators, who played in the American League for 60 seasons before moving to Minnesota in 1961, put together four-season runs of winning baseball three times. One came under Clark Griffith, from 1912-1915, when they never finished higher than second in the eight-team league. They did it again from 1924-27 under Bucky Harris, a run that included two AL pennants and the city’s only World Series title in 1924.

The Senators topped the .500 mark again from 1930-33 under Walter Johnson and Joe Cronin, a streak capped by Washington’s most recent World Series appearance. After that, the team managed just three more winning seasons over the next 27 years before leaving town.

Those who remember the expansion Senators’ tenure from 1961-1971 know well that they had just one winning season, when Ted Williams came to manage the team in 1969, and were otherwise miserable.

By contrast, the Nats’ six-season streak of winning baseball is the third-longest active run in the National League, behind the Cardinals’ 10 straight seasons and the Dodgers’ seven-season run. The only other team in baseball with a longer active streak of winning seasons is the Yankees, who haven’t had a sub-.500 season in 25 years, dating to 1993. All three teams are farther past .500 than the Nats, so they’re more likely to keep their streaks going this year.

But there’s more at stake in historical context for the Nats this season. Their overall record since moving to Washington is now 1,107-1,115 after the Sunday night game. They need to win at least 32 of their final 44 games (finishing 92-70 or better), if they want to finish the season having won more games than they lost since moving to Washington. That would be a boast not even the original Senators, who racked up 11 straight losing seasons before their first winning mark in 1912, could ever make.

The Nats will need quite a few more winning seasons to pass the .500 mark in franchise history, where they were 3,862-4,057, 195 games below .500, entering the Sunday night contest.

The lesson we should take here is that sustained success is not easy in baseball, is certainly not to be taken for granted and is not necessarily negated by postseason failure. The Braves’ run of 15 winning seasons from 1991-2005 could be argued as the greatest dynasty in NL history, and they have just one World Series trophy to show for it.

Even in a city that had no team for 33 seasons, the argument that even losing baseball is better than no baseball has worn thin by now. But for the last six years, Nats fans have seen more winning baseball than those of almost every other team. Have we, or the team, taken that for granted in obsessing over winning in the postseason?

The Nats will still say their goal is winning their first postseason series in October. But the measure of success now should be a seventh straight winning season, and possibly a winning overall mark after 13 seasons in Washington.

Marty Niland blogs about the Nationals for D.C. Baseball History. Follow him on Twitter: @martyball98. His thoughts on the Nationals will appear here as part of MASNsports.com’s season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our site. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.

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