The wait is almost over. After 86 years, Washington baseball fans get a World Series to call their own when the Nationals take on the Houston Astros in a best-of-seven starting Tuesday in Texas.
The Nationals’ bid for a title comes as the city is rapidly dispensing with the idea of a Washington sports curse: The Capitals kicked open the door last year with a Stanley Cup, the Mystics won the WNBA title earlier this month, and now the Nationals, full of swagger and loaded with talent, will take their turn at the plate.
If this Nationals team feels different, that’s because it is. This is a squad, after all, that climbed out of a 19-31 hole to eventually sweep the St. Louis Cardinals in the National League Championship Series.
“It’s been such a ball down the hill experience that’s been rolling into something that we can’t quite stop,” Nationals outfielder Adam Eaton said. “Just gotta continue to roll with it.
“I feel like if you stop and you take a breath, and you think we’ve made it, you’re going to lose the next round or you’re going to lose the next game.”
The Nationals, who arrived in the District in 2005, haven’t traveled through the baseball desert like some of their fans who grew up rooting for the long-departed Senators.
But there have been trying times and bitter disappointments on the journey to the Fall Classic.
There were the 100-plus loss-seasons late last decade. There were playoff meltdowns and narrow defeats. Between 2014 and 2017, eight of the Nationals’ nine playoff losses were by a single run. They were World Series favorites in recent years, only to come up short.
On this iteration of the Nationals, only seven players — Matt Adams, Brian Dozier, Max Scherzer, Anibal Sanchez, Fernando Rodney, Yan Gomes and Hunter Strickland — have previously played in a World Series. Only one, Strickland, has ever won it all.
The Nationals are the oldest team in the league — by a considerable margin. According to ESPN, the Nationals’ average age is 31.1, topping the Atlanta Braves’ 29.7.
General manager Mike Rizzo values experience. He says he wants players who have lived through both success and failures.
With the veterans comes a sense of urgency. Team meetings are rare for Washington — manager Dave Martinez prefers to meet individually with a player if he’s struggling. But the veterans delivered a message in an early spring training team gathering.
Scherzer, Sanchez and catcher Kurt Suzuki emphasized the importance of the year ahead.
“All those guys basically said, ‘I’m getting old. We’re getting old. And we want to win and we have the guys in this room to win,’” Eaton said.
The Nationals believe the veteran presence helped overcome the season’s poor start.
Eaton said his teammates are “pretty level-headed,” which helps the team’s chemistry over the course of a long year. No player, he said, is off limits when it comes to the team’s propensity for poking fun at one another.
“It really doesn’t happen everywhere,” Eaton said.
The fun-loving Nationals enter the World Series having won 16 of their last 18. Even in intense moments — rallying in both the wild card game and Game 5 of the NLDS — the team kept its composure.
In many ways, these Nationals look like another team in town that conquered its demons to win its first title: the Washington Capitals.
When Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby watches the Nationals, he sees similarities to his team’s Stanley Cup run in 2018.
Neither team played with any pressure, he said.
“They just started to learn how to play as a group and have fun with it,” Holtby said. “You could tell. The playoffs this year was a lot like us. They weren’t tense. They weren’t the favorites where they had to win. They were playing because they wanted to keep playing together. … That was exactly like us.”
Before the Capitals won their first title, years of playoff exits took a toll.
With memories of the Washington Redskins’ Super Bowl wins fading, new generations of District sports fans increasingly knew nothing but regular season misery or early playoff exits.
Until the Capitals beat the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2018, there were 71 consecutive seasons in Washington in which a major pro sports team failed to reach a conference final.
The 20-year streak was the longest in sports with cities with at least one NHL, NBA, MLB or NFL team.
Even Nationals reliever Sean Doolittle picked up on the city’s history when he first arrived in the District during the 2017 trade deadline. That year, Doolittle, Ryan Madson and Brandon Kintzler were acquired in attempt to shore up the bullpen.
Doolittle recalled the reaction from fans: “‘This is the year that we’re going to do it. We’re going to get past the first round of the playoffs.’”
He said he couldn’t believe how little confidence District fans had.
“We have a team that can win the World Series,” Doolittle said, recalling the moment. “What are we talking about?”
That’s changed now.
Fans have shown they can get behind Washington teams. Capitals center Lars Eller glowingly remembered how fans packed the team’s practice rink before they traveled to Las Vegas for the Cup final. The Washington Mystics had a full stadium when they beat the Connecticut Sun earlier this month.
To add the Nationals to that honor roll, the Nationals will have to beat one of the best teams in baseball.
Houston, which won it all in 2017, features a star-studded rotation led by Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole and Zack Greinke. They have homegrown talent in Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa and Alex Bregman.
Washington, though, doesn’t want its run to end.
“For us, we didn’t come this far just to get here,” Doolittle said. “It feels cool being a part of a team that won the first playoff series in Nats history and played in the first championship series ever at Nats Park. That stuff’s really, really cool but there will be time to look back and appreciate those kinds of things later.
“But for now, we just really want that championship.”