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Despite Collapse, D.C. Sports History Shows Nats Have Bright Future

by David Elfin
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Bryce Harper sits in the dugout. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

Bryce Harper sits in the dugout. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

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What a whirlwind, Washington fans.

When I hit the road on Thursday to visit my eldest at college in Vermont, the Nats trailed the Cardinals 2-1 in the National League Division series, it was less than sure that Robert Griffin III was going to be deemed fully recovered from his mild concussion in time to start Sunday’s game against the visiting Minnesota Vikings for the Redskins, who hadn’t won at home for more than a year. And Maryland hadn’t won an ACC game away from Byrd Stadium in going on two.

This morning, Griffin is even more beloved thanks to the 76-yard dash to the end zone that clinched the Redskins’ 38-26 conquest of the Vikings, the Terps are basking in the glow of a 27-20 victory at Virginia, and most important, the Nats are still pondering the what-ifs of a their first postseason appearance, one that was extended by Jayson Werth’s wallop of a walkoff homer that won Game 4 and that came to a stunning conclusion 28 hours later right back on South Capitol Street when closer Drew Storen surrendered four runs in the ninth inning of Game 5 after being one strike away from saving the game and the series.

For those who think that Washington has never felt such sports-related agony, think again. Try losing two baseball teams – the original Senators and their expansion successors — in the span of 11 years. How about suffering the most humiliating defeat in NFL history, the Redskins’ 73-0 destruction courtesy of the Chicago Bears in the 1940 Championship Game? Don’t forget the Bullets being swept by the Golden State Warriors in the 1975 NBA finals. And when it comes to postseason failures, few franchises can match the Caps.

The Caps are actually a good team to compare to the Nats. Not the Caps of Alex Ovechkin and Co. rocking the red at sold-out Verizon Center. I’m talking the first decade of hockey in town.

Washington hockey fans under 40, who are used to their team making the playoffs every spring with the regularity of the cherry blossoms blooming, don’t appreciate the travails of the Caps’ early years.

The 1974-75 expansion Caps were probably the worst team in NHL history, going 8-67-5 while being outscored 446-181. Washington’s lone victory away from Capital Centre came in its road finale at Oakland, a triumph that prompted the beleaguered players to parade around the visitors’ locker room with a trash can pretending it was the Stanley Cup.

Seven more seasons out of the playoffs followed. Then, thirty years ago last month, general manager David Poile swung a huge trade with the powerful Montreal Canadiens, one that brought fiery defenseman Rod Langway to Washington. Langway’s leadership and excellence in his own zone and Bryan Murray’s coaching turned around the Caps who soared from 60 points to 94 and into the playoffs for the first time in April 1983.

Unfortunately for Washington, its opening round opponent was the New York Islanders, who were en route to winning their fourth straight Cup. The Caps won Game 2 of the best-of-five series on Long Island but was eliminated after losing the next two contests on home ice, a sign of things to come for them.

Nats fans, imagine upbeat ace Gio Gonzalez, acquired from Oakland last December, as Langway and the Cardinals in place of the Islanders. What I’m saying is that we’ve been here before with a Washington franchise on the rise. Teams don’t generally rocket from also-rans to champions in just one year.

The spring after the first playoff series defeat, the Caps swept Philadelphia in the first round before being ousted by the Islanders again. A third straight loss to the Islanders followed in 1985, this one after Washington led the series 2-0 before falling in the final three games – two at home — by a total of four goals. It wasn’t until 1986 that the Caps finally beat the Islanders in the playoffs, until 1990 that they reached the conference finals, and until 1998 that they finally skated for the Cup. Of course, we’re still waiting for them to win the title, but don’t let that depress you, Nats fans.

The Cardinals outscored the Nats 32-16 in the NLDs. Take away the first and third innings of Game 5 and Washington managed all of 10 runs in 43 innings, a woeful production that having Stephen Strasburg on the mound wouldn’t fix. St. Louis was simply too good and too mentally tough for Washington this year.

Let me repeat that: this year. Virtually all the pieces are in place for the Nats to remain a top contender in 2013 and beyond.

Wily manager with World Series rings? See, Johnson, Davey.

Formidable pitching? A rotation of Gonzalez, Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, Ross Detwiler and Christian Garcia backed by a bullpen of Storen, Tyler Clippard et al certainly meets that criteria.

A potent lineup? Hmm. Werth, life force Bryce Harper (who turns 20 on Saturday), mainstay Ryan Zimmerman (post-shoulder surgery), Adam LaRoche (assuming management renews the slugger’s option), Michael “The Beast” Morse, the rising double-play combination of Ian Desmond and Danny Espinosa, and Kurt Suzuki, (GM Mike Rizzo’s smart August pickup) definitely qualifies.

The Nats overcame serious injuries to Werth, Morse, former starting catcher Wilson Ramos and lengthy absences of Strasburg, Zimmerman and Desmond to finish with baseball’s best record in 2012. They were one strike away from reaching the NL Championship Series against San Francisco, whom they beat in five of six meetings this year while outscoring the Giants 45-24.

There’s no reason to think that the Nats won’t be right back in the mix next October, armed with the experience gained from their thrilling 2012 season and the lessons learned from their ultimate downfall against the champion Cardinals.

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

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