When they take the field shortly after 8 p.m. tonight, Max Scherzer leading the way, the Nationals will be facing far more than the Dodgers in a do-or-die baseball game. They’ll be facing their own demons, the demons of two previous postseason failures, the demons of two other regular season failures during this five-year run of excellence, the demons of Washington’s entire sports existence that have prevented any of the city’s major pro clubs from so much as reaching the final four of its league in 18 years.
Game 5 of the National League Division Series will serve as a referendum for all of that. Win and the curse has been broken. Lose and it’s all too real.
That’s what will be written, spoken and felt by everyone who watches. But here’s the problem: It’s not entirely fair, certainly not for this particular team, which already has done wonders to rise above the misery of past versions of itself.
The 2016 Nationals aren’t the 2012 Nationals or the 2014 Nationals. They really aren’t. This is a better team that has played better when it matters most and has earned respect.
Consider how the two previous NLDS played out ...
* In 2012, the Nats eked out a 3-2 victory in Game 1 over the Cardinals despite seven walks by Gio Gonzalez, got blown out in Games 2 and 3, rode Jayson Werth’s dramatic homer to a walk-off victory in Game 4 and then blew a six-run lead in Game 5 that will forever be remembered as one of the biggest meltdowns in baseball history.
* In 2014, the Nats got down early and couldn’t rally in Game 1, blew a 1-0 lead in the ninth inning of Game 2 and proceeded to lose in 18 agonizing innings, hung on by the skin of their teeth to win Game 3 and then lost Game 4 on a wild pitch by the 11th-best pitcher on their 12-man staff. Take away Bryce Harper and Anthony Rendon, and the team hit a collective .114 with three extra-base hits.
Now consider how this NLDS has played out so far ...
* Despite trailing 4-0 to Clayton Kershaw in Game 1, the Nationals rallied to knock out the Dodgers ace and pull within one more hit of an unlikely comeback.
* They did rally from behind in Game 2, getting a surprise three-run homer from Jose Lobaton and several more clutch hits to even up the series.
* They exploded for a pair of four-run innings in Game 3, silencing the crowd at Dodger Stadium and riding their lights-out bullpen to their first-ever lopsided postseason victory.
* They again battled Kershaw in Game 4, rallying from three runs down in the seventh to tie the contest before surrendering the winning run in the eighth in the first less-than-perfect performance from their bullpen of the series.
Four lineup regulars (Daniel Murphy, Ryan Zimmerman, Trea Turner, Werth) are hitting at least .333 in the series. Harper has a .421 on-base percentage and has provided some huge at-bats in big moments. Rendon has four RBIs, second only to Murphy.
The Nationals as a whole are batting .313 with runners in scoring position in the series. Since Lobaton’s Game 2 homer, they’re batting .429 (9-for-21).
The bullpen didn’t give up a run in its first 12 2/3 innings and owns a 1.08 ERA for the series.
Point is, these guys have played well in this series. Really well. No, the rotation has not done its part, but that hasn’t crushed the team’s chances. That’s because the bullpen has been brilliant, the lineup has consistently put together quality at-bats and Dusty Baker has deftly managed his way through these first four games.
Does that mean the Nationals deserve a free pass if they lose Game 5? No, of course not. You get a winner-take-all game at home, with your ace on the mound on full rest, you’re supposed to win.
But if the Nationals come up short tonight, resist the temptation to lump this team with the others that came before it. This team has displayed both talent and nerve over the last week, two traits that were sorely lacking in the previous versions.
This has turned in a highly entertaining, highly tense postseason series between two evenly matched opponents. And tonight one of them will be crowned the victors and awarded the opportunity to face the Cubs for the NL pennant.
The opportunity is right in front of the Nationals. Win Game 5 and they’ll have done something neither their predecessors nor any other local team could do in the last two decades.
But even if they don’t, they should walk away with heads held much higher than they were in 2012 or 2014. They’ve already proven a lot to us in the last week.