- The Washington Times - Monday, September 22, 2014

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

In most years since the Nationals arrived in Washington, fans haven’t expected much and they’ve gotten just what they expected — last-place finish after last-place finish, if not next-to-last.

However, the exact opposite was true the previous two seasons. Fans anticipated great things and they were rewarded with great disappointment, from what appeared to be a slot in the 2012 National League Championship Series, to what presumably was a surefire berth in the 2013 playoffs.

This season has brought great expectations along with doses of apprehension. After watching the team come within one pitch of advancing to the NLCS, and then miss the playoffs despite being a popular pick to reach the World Series the following year, a little anxiety amongst the base is understandable.

We’ve barely grown accustomed to having baseball back in the nation’s capital, as the Nats are approaching the 10th anniversary of their relocation from Montreal.

It’s going to take a while longer to get used to the sport’s fickle treatment of winners and would-be winners.

The Nats returned from their last regular-season road trip with their second NL East title in three years and the league’s best record. They’re poised to secure home-field advantage throughout the National League playoffs, which doesn’t mean as much in baseball but certainly doesn’t hurt. They’ll look to seal the deal during this homestand and then get set for the postseason.

Two trips in three years is no small feat for most teams, so these rides are to be savored no matter the final outcome. At this point, the Nats are trying to emulate two thorns-in-the-side, St. Louis and Atlanta.

We’re unlikely to see another stretch as dominant as the Braves’ run from 1991-2005, when they won a mind-boggling 14 consecutive division titles. Yes, it includes an asterisk in 1994, when Montreal owned baseball’s best record and led Atlanta by six games before the strike ended the season. But winning 13 out of 14 division titles would be just as impressive.

Though no match for the Braves’ streak in terms of longevity, the Cardinals have been remarkably consistent otherwise. St. Louis is positioned to win its ninth NL Central title in 19 years. The Cards haven’t gone longer than three seasons during that stretch without winning the division.

History teaches us that such sustained success is no guarantee of the ultimate prize.

Atlanta lost four of the five World Series it reached in those 14 seasons. St. Louis, which also has reached the playoffs three times as a wild card, is 2-2 in World Series since 1996.

But this could be the year that Washington advances to the NLCS and perhaps all the way to the Fall Classic. The Nats are hot, healthy and loaded, featuring an excess of quality starting pitchers, relievers and everyday players. That’s a great “problem” to have as GM Mike Rizzo and manager Matt Williams sort out the postseason roster.

One situation has cleared up: Stephen Strasburg should get the ball to start Game 1 of the NLDS.

It had gone from a foregone conclusion to a question of merit, but he’s made it a no-brainer again. In his last five starts, Strasburg has a 1.34 ERA with 33 strikeouts and two walks, performing like the pitcher Washington envisioned when he was drafted in 2009 … and shut down in 2012.

We’ll never know what might’ve happened if Rizzo changed his mind and let Strasburg exceed the predetermined innings limit. All we know for a fact is that Washington blew a two-run lead in the ninth inning to lose Game 5 of the NLDS against St. Louis.

Two years removed from that disappointment, we can look back and smile when thinking about the ride.

The atmosphere at the ballpark on South Capitol Street was electric as generations of fans were introduced to postseason baseball for the first time. Even when those trips come to sudden, heartbreaking halts, they give more than they take away.

Sometime next Friday, the Nats will emerge from their dugout and take the field. Their home whites will look extra crisp. Special logos will be emblazoned on the field. Festive bunting will hang from the stands. Another regular season will have ended and Washington will find itself among the four teams still playing baseball.

What happens next is anyone’s guess (though happy endings seem highly unlikely in games against Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw).

We won’t be surprised if the Nats advance and advance again and enjoy another wild celebration, this one in late October, perhaps at an American League ballpark. And we won’t be surprised if our consolation prize is “merely” two division titles in three years.

Apprehension notwithstanding, we now expect and anticipate great things from the Nats.

In baseball, that’s about as good as it gets.

We’ll gladly take it.

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