Matthew Taylor: Comparing the Orioles and Nationals seasons

Who has had it worse this season, Baltimore Orioles fans or Washington Nationals fans? The two teams will square off next week in a series that fans of each franchise had expected to be a tune-up for postseason play. Instead, it will be a match-up of drowning teams gasping desperately for a breath of playoff air.

Neither of the teams playing near the Navy Yard next week is fully submerged just yet, but the O’s and Nats have both been sinking ships for some time now. The teams have both sounded an S.O.S., as in Save Our Season. With that outcome unlikely for either outfit, it’s fair to ask who has it worse? The answer depends on whether you focus on expectations (what could have been) or outlook (what could still be).

Let’s start with expectations. The Orioles and Nationals each won their respective divisions in 2014 and finished with identical 96-66 records. Both teams lost to their league’s World Series representative in disheartening playoff series. Neither team enjoyed a cherry on top of its season, but 2014 was hardly the pits for either fan base.

The offseason provided plenty of solace for Nationals fans as their team added ace Max Scherzer to the fold; meanwhile, the injured Orioles fan’s soul took on added insult as the team lost Nelson Cruz, Nick Markakis and Andrew Miller to free agency. And thus the expectations game favored the Nationals headed into 2015 as they became World Series contenders, if not outright favorites.

Here was Sports Illustrated’s take on the Nats headed into 2015: “The best rotation in baseball and one of its deepest lineups lead a loaded Nationals team that has the potential to be a 100-win juggernaut.” The magazine picked the Nats as its top team and guesstimated that they’d win 99 games.

Here was Sports Illustrated’s take on the Orioles headed into 2015: “Last year’s surprising AL East champions are out to prove that 2014 was no fluke, but the odds are once again against them.” The magazine picked the O’s as its 15th-best team and guesstimated that they’d win 82 games.

If you’re talking expectations, Nationals fans have had it worse this season than Orioles fans.

Now, let’s talk outlook. Baseball fans can transition remarkably quickly from “I can’t wait for this season to end” to “When do pitchers and catchers report?” Even the most hardened fan - and Orioles fans who have truly been with the team for any real length of time qualify as hardened - watches the World Series celebration and thinks to him or herself, “One day.” It’s a fool’s errand that we’re happy to keep running.

Shortly after watching enviously as one team gets tricked and the other enjoys baseball’s ultimate treat this October, baseball fans will gather around the virtual hot stove and begin setting expectations anew. The rise and fall of hopes is seasonal, cyclical and, perhaps most reliably, cynical. Here’s where O’s fans have Nats fans beat. Few do cynicism as well as Orioles fans, many of whom have been on high alert about the offseason even before the first pitch of 2015.

Sure, the Nationals have their concerns. Their free agent list includes Jordan Zimmermann, Doug Fister, Denard Span and Ian Desmond. It’s enough to make one writer conclude of the Nationals, “They’re struggling enough to make you worried about this season and the next one, too.”

Then there are the Orioles concerns. Their free agent list includes Chris Davis, Matt Wieters, Wei-Yin Chen, Darren O’Day and Steve Pearce. It was almost obligatory to use the phrase “window of opportunity” in conversation about the Orioles for the past couple of seasons. By midseason, that window of opportunity had taken on the feel of an oncoming “seismic shift,” as one writer so accurately described things in July.

Regardless of how the cards are shuffled this offseason, the Nationals are likely to be playing a better hand thanks to a stronger starting rotation, a deeper farm system and a top-five payroll that surpassed the Orioles’ 16th-largest payroll by $50 million in 2015.

As an Orioles fan, it was difficult to imagine much worse than the team’s 11-18 August, including dual, season-long six-game losing streaks, with another playoff berth within reach. A punch to the gut? It was more likely several repeated body blows. Here’s hoping the offseason doesn’t deliver a knockout punch.

So who has had it worse this season? Given the expectations, I’ll say Nationals fans have had a tougher go of it. But something tells me they’ll get over it.

Matthew Taylor blogs about the Orioles at Roar from 34. Follow him on Twitter: @RoarFrom34. His ruminations about the Birds appear 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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