Cubs ended their drought last year, and now Nationals try to end theirs in NL division series

Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper, left, laughs with Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant, right, at Nationals Park on Oct. 5.
(Nick Wass / Associated Press)

It is almost a civic requirement. If you talk about the Dodgers’ latest bid for the World Series, you are practically obligated to include the year 1988 in your discussion. Los Angeles has waited so long for its baseball team to return to the World Series that Kirk Gibson has become a historical reference point for local cultural literacy.

Los Angeles, you ain’t got nothing on Washington.

Washington has waited for its baseball team to return to the World Series for so long that just about everyone that saw the last winning one is gone now. The year was 1924, the home team was the Senators, and the guy in the big white house was Calvin Coolidge.

The home team now is called the Nationals. They open the National League division series Friday against the Chicago Cubs, the defending World Series champions.


The comparison between Los Angeles and Washington is not entirely fair. Washington did not have a team from 1972-2004, after the original Senators left for Minnesota and the reborn Senators left for Texas. For the teams that have called Washington home, the streak of seasons without a World Series appearance has hit 48.

This is the most painful part: The Washington baseball teams have not even won a postseason series since 1924. The Dodgers did that as recently as last year, by beating Washington.

And, while no one here is asking Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg to atone for the sins of Joe Cronin and Frank Howard, these Nationals are acutely aware of the failures of this generation.

In 2012, they lost to the St. Louis Cardinals, blowing a two-run lead in Game 5 with one out to go.


In 2014, they lost to the San Francisco Giants, winning the game started by Madison Bumgarner and losing the other three.

In 2016, they lost to the Dodgers, when Clayton Kershaw stopped them as a starter in Game 4 and as a reliever in Game 5.

The Nationals suffered through back-to-back 100-loss seasons in 2008-09, but their reward was the No. 1 draft pick in each successive spring: Stephen Strasburg in 2009, Bryce Harper in 2010.

Strasburg is expected to be the only pitcher under 30 to start in the series for the Nationals, and maybe the only pitcher under 30 to throw for them, period. Harper is 24, but he can file for free agency after next season.

The Cubs slogged their way through the first half, but they posted the best record in the National League in the second half, with the same young and dynamic offense that suggested last year’s World Series championship might have just been their start.

“We want to become the dominant force in Major League Baseball,” the Cubs’ Ben Zobrist told reporters in Chicago this week.

Nationals manager Dusty Baker got to the World Series with the Dodgers in 1977-78, losing to the New York Yankees both times, then got back to the World Series with the Dodgers in 1981 and beat the Yankees.

In a news conference here Thursday, Baker was offered the chance to say the Cubs’ championship experience last year would not matter this year.


“No, it matters,” Baker said, “because I’ve been there. I’ve been on repeats … the feeling that you have, and the feeling of confidence and not the panic or whatever it is.”

Still, Baker said he is not worried about his players, even with constant reminders of their October failures.

“They know what’s at stake,” he said. “We don’t have a bunch of meetings. That’s how you know you have a good team, when you don’t have the need for a bunch of meetings.”

Strasburg said he hoped the Nationals’ experience would rise up to match the urgency.

“This team is a little bit more battle-tested than we have been in the past,” he said.

“Yes, the expectations are a little bit more, but those things are always going to be there when you have that kind of talent in that clubhouse. So, in my opinion, I think this is going to be a great time for us.”


Follow Bill Shaikin on Twitter @BillShaikin