Reporting David Elfin
It might not be as exciting as was clinching their first playoff berth on Sept. 20, winning their first National League East title last Monday or opening the NL Division Series with a victory three days ago in St. Louis, but the Nationals will make history again with their home postseason opener this afternoon.
The game will be a landmark for a franchise which called Montreal home just eight years ago, was a 103-game loser as recently as 2009, and finished last again in 2010.
But Game 3 of the deadlocked NLDS is bigger than just the fortunes of the surprising Nats, who finished with the best record in the majors at 98-64.
Other than the Capitals, who have made the Stanley Cup playoffs five years running, Washington hasn’t played host to a postseason game since May 2, 2008 when the Wizards were eliminated by the Cavaliers with a 105-88 defeat in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals. That marked the third straight spring that Cleveland had bounced Washington from the playoffs.
That was more than 53 months ago. Barack Obama had yet to seal the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination. Wizards guard Bradley Beal was finishing his freshman year of high school in St. Louis. Abe Pollin still owned the Wizards, who relied on the triumvirate of Gilbert Arenas, Antawn Jamison and Caron Butler for coach Eddie Jordan.
On May 2, 2008, the Nats were crushed 11-4 by the visiting Pittsburgh Pirates in their 16th game at new Nats Park to slip to 12-18 en route to a 59-102 finish under manager Manny Acta. Washington’s lineup included outfielders Willy Mo Pena and Lastings Milledge, second baseman Felipe Lopez, catcher Wil Nieves and 23-year-old third baseman Ryan Zimmerman.
That same day, the Redskins, coming off a wild-card season under Joe Gibbs, began their first minicamp for new coach Jim Zorn. Second-round draft choices Devin Thomas, Fred Davis and Malcolm Kelly were the new players to watch as Washington aimed for its first home playoff game since Jan. 8, 2000, itself the franchise’s only such contest since the 1991 NFC Championship Game.
By May 2, new coach Bruce Boudreau’s young Caps of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green had been golfing for 10 days after rallying from a 3-1 deficit to the Philadelphia Flyers in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals only to lose Game 7 in overtime at home.
That all seems so long ago, doesn’t it? But the home playoff loss has a familiar ring. The Wizards were just 5-8 in postseason at Verizon Center (compared to 3-10 on the road) during the Big Three era from 2005-08. The Caps are just 11-12 on F Street (10-11 on enemy ice) come playoff time with Ovechkin as their focal point. And as noted, the Redskins haven’t played host to a postseason game since the Clinton Administration.
Even D.C. United is on the act, having failed to reach the Major League Soccer playoffs since 2007, although that will change with a victory or tie in the Oct. 20 home finale against Columbus at RFK Stadium.
The Caps’ quarterfinal eliminations of the New York Rangers in 2009 and 2011 and of the defending champion Boston Bruins this spring represent the only series victories by a Washington franchise since United’s last triumph six years ago this month.
That’s not exactly an illustrious recent history on which the Nats can draw as they begin to write their own postseason legacy. But perhaps they can look much further back for encouragement, all the way to the Senators of 1924-25-33, who went 6-4 at old Griffith Stadium during their three World Series appearances in a decade.
The Senators played their final postseason game 79 years and three days ago. It was a 4-2 home loss to the New York Giants, whom they had beaten for their only championship nine years earlier.
One thing’s for certain. Win or lose today and there will be a Game 4 at Nats Park tomorrow. Considering the recent failures of Washington teams to reach postseason, let alone triumph once there, that alone is a victory in itself.
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last two Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since last March. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin