Nationals fans believe that this will be their year – so do I

This isn’t necessarily a now-or-never situation for the Washington Nationals, as some pundits have claimed.

The Nats are likely to again be favorites to win the NL East crown in 2018, and will have the talent again to be a serious championship contender.

However, it is getting to be time for the Nationals to prove that they can actually win a postseason series, let alone make a deep October run.

This is the sixth consecutive season of contention in our nation’s capital. Washington captured the NL East crown in four of those six seasons, and finished second in the other two. This is their fourth shot at postseason play.

In their three previous October series, the Nationals dropped a hard-fought NLDS. In 2012 it was a 3-2 series defeat at the hands of the Saint Louis Cardinals.

The Nats won the opener of that series, and held a 7-5 lead with two outs in the top of the 9th in the decisive Game Five before a Cardinals rally killed their dreams.

In 2014, the eventual World Series champion San Francisco Giants took out the Nats in four games. Each of the three defeats came by a single run: 3-2 and 2-1 in the first two games, and then a 3-2 defeat in Game Four where the Giants clinching run scored via a wild pitch.

Last season, Washington was a clear favorite against the LA Dodgers. A 3-2 loss to Clayton Kershaw in the opener was nothing to be ashamed of, and the Nats bounced back to capture the next two games.

Then in Game Four, the Dodgers tied the series with a two-out, nobody on rally in the bottom of the 8th in which a Chase Utley RBI single drove in the winning run of a 6-5 game.

In Game Five, Max Scherzer was tossing a gem, shutting out the Dodgers for six innings. But in the 7th, LA erupted for four runs, ultimately holding on for a 4-3 victory that again eliminated the Nationals.

This history matters, because if the defending World Series champion Chicago Cubs get out to a series lead, or even take it to a decisive game, that history of playoff losing could work on the Nationals collective heads.

The two teams battled fairly even in the regular season, with the Nats capturing four of the seven games. In late June, they split a four-game set at Nationals Park. Then in early August, Washington took two of three at Wrigley Field.

This series should prove to be a fantastic managerial matchup between two of the game’s best and most experienced field generals.

Washington skipper Dusty Baker has guided the Nationals to the NL East title in each of his first two seasons with the club. Baker was a 2x NL All-Star and Silver Slugger winner during a 19-year playing career that stretched all the way back to 1968. He was a key player on the 1981 Dodgers team that won the World Series.

As a manager, Baker has guided four different teams over a total of 22 seasons. He has a cumulative 1,863-1,636 regular season record, won division titles with each of his four teams, and took the 2002 San Francisco Giants to the World Series.

The Cubs have gone 292-193 in three seasons under Joe Maddon, who skippered them to the franchise’ first World Series championship since 1908 a year ago.

Maddon previously won a pair of division crowns and an AL Pennant with the Tampa Bay Rays over nine seasons. He was also a member of Mike Scioscia’s staff when the Anaheim Angels beat Baker’s Giants in that 2002 Fall Classic.

Baker will send 3x NL All-Star Stephen Strasburg to the hill in Friday’s opener at Nationals Park, but has yet to announce his rotation beyond the opener. The likelihood is that it will be Scherzer and lefty Gio Gonzalez in some order for Game Two in Washington, and then Game Three in Chicago.

Maddon has already announced Kyle Hendricks for the opener, followed by Jon Lester in Game Two, and then trade deadline acquisition Jose Quintana in Game Three.

These are two star-studded lineups. The Nationals key could be the readiness of right fielder Bryce Harper, one of the most dynamic players in the game today. A nearly devastating leg injury limited the soon-to-be 25-year old to just 111 games. He was able to return for the final five games, and he should be ready to go.

Also featured in the Nationals lineup is second baseman Daniel Murphy, a 3x NL All-Star, the 2016 NL MVP runner-up, and the 2015 NLCS MVP while with the New York Mets.

Third baseman Anthony Rendon is going to receive NL MVP votes this time around. Shortstop Trea Turner is one of the game’s biggest stolen base threats. Veterans Ryan Zimmerman, Jayson Werth, and Matt Wieters bring not just their talents, but also a wealth of big game experience.

The champion Cubs come with perhaps the deepest collection of talented youngsters in the game today in third baseman Kris Bryant (25), first baseman Anthony Rizzo (28), catcher Willson Contreras (25), left fielder Kyle Schwarber (24), right fielder Jason Heyward (28), center fielder Albert Almora (23) and a pair of super utility guys in Javier Baez (24) and 23-year old rookie Ian Happ.

The Cubs also have one of the best and most experienced and versatile players in this postseason in 36-year old Ben Zobrist, who was with Maddon back in the Tampa Bay days and played a key role on last year’s title team.

Right-handed starting pitcher Jake Arrieta, perhaps the Cubs best, is battling a hamstring injury. He is expected to start Game Four. If he cannot go, Maddon may turn to lefty Mike Montgomery, depending on how much the veteran has been used out of the bullpen.

Out of the bullpens, both managers have an array of talented options. Maddon will turn to righties John Lackey, Pedro Strop, Carl Edwards, and closer Wade Davis. From the left side he will bring Montgomery, Justin Wilson, and Brian Duensing.

When Baker calls to the bullpen he will be looking for righties Ryan Madson, Matt Albers, Brandon Kintzler, and possibly even usual starter Tanner Roark. From the southpaw side it will be Oliver Perez, Enny Romero, Sammy Solis, and closer Sean Doolittle.

This is a battle of the two teams that I see as the National League’s best. The winner of this series should be favored in the NLCS, and should they advance that far, will pose a major challenge to the American League champions in the World Series.

Much as with my prediction for the other NLDS, this is completely a gut call. Two evenly matched teams. Washington has home field advantage. I just think it’s their time. Don’t be surprised to see Harper take over this postseason, while Rendon shows his talent on a national stage. Nationals in a hard-fought five games.

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