- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 5, 2017

You won’t hear it from anyone on this roster, but when Stephen Strasburg and the rest of the Nationals take the field Friday night for the first of a best-of-five playoff series, they won’t just be taking on the world champion Chicago Cubs.

The Nationals will also be facing the ghosts of past playoff failures that have taunted the franchise since it became one of baseball’s finest following a move to Washington from Montreal in 2005. The Cubs, who got a century of postseason frustration off their backs last year know it. The more than 30,000 fans who will pack the park Friday and Saturday for Game 1 and Game 2 know it. And the Nationals‘ players and coaches know it, too — though you’d be hard-pressed to find any willing to admit it aloud.

Manager Dusty Baker, who saw his first Nationals squad bounced last season in the first round, says the past, well, that’s the past.

In general, the 68-year-old baseball lifer tries to focus on the present. Previous health scares helped shape that view. His seven decades on the planet, most spent in pro baseball after a major-league debut at 19, have given him perspective.

“I don’t think about what you haven’t done,” Baker said. “You think about what you can control, which is the power of now. We’re in it now. I’ve been through a number of these where there a lot of unlikely heroes. Guys that should be heroes aren’t and guys you don’t count on being heroes are. It’s hero time. Guys are born and made during this time.”

Longtime Nationals outfielder Jayson Werth, who arrived in Washington in 2010, has seen, firsthand, more of the franchise’s highs and lows than Baker, and this postseason, in all likelihood, is the fan favorite’s last chance to be a hero in a Nationals uniform.

Like Baker, Werth’s age, 38, prior playoff experience and expiring contract give him a unique perspective on the trials, past and present, facing the Nationals. Werth has helped the organization grow up since he came to the District seven years ago on a $126 million contract. Pressure came with those numbers and his arrival. He has one remaining focus.

“We obviously need to win a World Series for me to feel like this was a total success signing here,” Werth said.

Baker, too, is at the end of his contract. When he was hired in 2016 to replace Matt Williams, Baker signed a two-year deal. He and the Nationals expect they will come to an agreement for him to return. But that will not happen before the postseason is over.

Which means the toothpick-chomping Baker could be one his final chase. He helped win the 1981 World Series as a Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder. He has yet to replicate the feat in four stops as a manager. He reached the World Series with the San Francisco Giants. He was five outs away from it with Chicago. His three playoff appearances in Cincinnati fizzled. The Nationals didn’t advance last season.

In Baker’s way — in the Nationals‘ way — are the Cubs.

They are less potent and more carefree than a season ago. The Cubs ended 108 years of tension by winning a title in 2016. No longer are they the “lovable losers” who last won the World Series in 1908, the same year Nelson Rockefeller was born. Instead, they had a parade to celebrate the dashing of 100-plus years of infamy. They dance in the bullpen when a run is scored. Their manager, Joe Maddon, sports thick-rimmed glasses and unconventional baseball methods.

This year, Washington is chasing its redemption. The Nationals won their first National League East Division title two years after Werth arrived in 2010. Since, they have been one of Major League Baseball’s most consistent teams, averaging 91 wins in Werth’s seven seasons. The last two years produced 95 and 97 wins, respectively.

But none of that has helped the Nationals out of the division series in the first round of the postseason. Last year, they had homefield advantage and lost in five games to the Los Angeles Dodgers. The end came with Los Angeles celebrating on the Nationals‘ field.

From Werth to Bryce Harper and Ryan Zimmerman, the anchors of the Nationals‘ have waded through those down times together during the course of three first-round postseason eliminations.

“I think what we’ve learned in the playoffs is no one can predict what’s going to happen,” Zimmerman said. “Everyone tries to and thinks they know what’s going to happen, but nobody does.”

Chicago comes to the District with its past sealed off. For the Nationals, it’s still raw, still festering. It’s attached to the shaggy-haired Werth, calm Zimmerman and still-blossoming Harper. This group assembled by general manager Mike Rizzo is assured of only one more shot at glory together. Because of their past failures, they are facing the Cubs and more.

“We respect the Chicago Cubs,” Rizzo said. “They’re the champs. They’re wearing the crown and we’re trying to take it from them.”

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