Associated Press

Is this the year the Nationals finally win a playoff series?

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We couldn’t go five minutes last postseason without hearing about the 108 years it had been since the Cubs won a World Series. They won, of course and here they are back again. Only this time they’ll be looking to perpetuate someone else’s playoff drought.

You can look at the Nationals’ October struggles in the short term or the long term. The long term is more historically interesting than truly relevant, of course: no Washington baseball team has won a World Series since 1924, when the Washington Senators took the title. Obviously the Nationals have no direct connection to either of the two franchises which carried the Senators name from 1901 through 1971, but championships are just as much if not more about fan experience than team experience, and there is virtually no one with living memory of any baseball team that called Washington home winning the Fall Classic.

Far more relevant for Washington are the Nationals’ recent playoff struggles. The Nationals came into existence in 2005 after the Expos moved from Montreal. They made it to the playoffs three times between 2012 and 2016 and they’ve yet to win a series, losing in the division series each time.  This year, however, they seem better positioned to advance than in years past, even with the defending World Series champion Chicago Cubs in their path.

The star power is obvious here, with Bryce Harper, Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Ryan Zimmerman, Anthony Rendon and Daniel Murphy giving them more players capable of going on dominant, team-carrying stretches than anyone else in the playoffs. There are injury concerns — Bryce Harper is back, but was rusty upon his return from the disabled list in late September, and Max Scherzer poised to pitch but dealing with a tender hamstring — but Dusty Baker has all manner of weapons at his disposal.

The biggest difference between this year and years past, however, comes in the bullpen. It was a liability in the first part of the season but Mike Rizzo completely transformed the unit over the course of the season, adding relievers Ryan MadsonBrandon Kintzler and Sean Doolittle to solidify matters. As a result of these improvements, this may be the most well-rounded Nationals club we’ve seen since the ascended to contender status five years ago.

Chicago, of course, poises a huge challenge. They’re a patient team and a powerful team, coming in second in the NL in walks and finishing one dinger off the league lead in homers. While the Nationals got more press in 2017 about their offensive prowess, much of that came early when Washington was healthier and dominating early season foes and the Cubs were struggling. By the end of the year, the Cubs scored 822 runs, the Nats 819. They’re very evenly matched on offense.

In the regular season the Nationals took edged their series 4-3, with the clubs splitting a four-game matchup in Washington in late June and the Nats taking two of three at Wrigley Field in early August. That was before Harper’s injury, of course, and before the Cubs put the hammer down to take control of the NL Central as the month wore on.  They’re evenly matched in almost all respects, really. To the point where it’s a little sad that they’re meeting in a best-of-five series rather than a best-of-seven.

But a best-of-five it is and, as the saying goes, something’s got to give. Will the Nats’ playoff futility, historic or recent, end? And with it, will the Cubs’ quest to repeat? Your guess is as good as ours because, on paper, there isn’t a better matchup in the playoffs this year than the Cubs and Nats.

Astros push ALCS to Game 7 with 7-1 stunner against Yankees

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There’s just something about playing in your home ballpark. The Astros decimated the Yankees at Minute Maid Park on Friday, riding seven scoreless innings from Justin Verlander and a pair of big runs from Jose Altuve to win 7-1 and force a Game 7 in the American League Championship Series.

Through the first four innings, however, the teams looked equally matched. Luis Severino no-hit the Astros through 3 2/3 innings, losing his bid on Carlos Correa‘s line drive single in the fourth. The Astros returned in the fifth to do some real damage, drawing two walks and plating the first run of the night with Brian McCann‘s ground-rule double off of the right field wall. Things didn’t get any easier for Severino. Jose Altuve lined a two-RBI base hit into left field, upping Houston’s advantage to three runs.

Verlander, meanwhile, muted the Yankees’ offense with seven innings of five-hit, eight-strikeout ball. While he didn’t come close to matching his complete game effort in Game 2, he was still plenty dominant against a struggling New York lineup. No player reached past first base until the sixth inning, when a pair of base hits from Chase Headley and Didi Gregorius gave the Yankees their first runner in scoring position. That didn’t last long, though, as Gary Sanchez grounded out on a 3-0 slider to end the inning.

In the seventh, Houston’s ace got into another spot of trouble. He walked Greg Bird on six pitches to start the inning, then plunked Starlin Castro on the wrist. Aaron Hicks struck out, in part thanks to a questionable call by home plate umpire Jim Reynolds, but it was Todd Frazier who presented the biggest threat after returning an 0-1 fastball for a 403-foot fly out to left field. Luckily for Verlander, George Springer was there to bail him out with a leaping catch at the wall.

The Yankees kept things exciting in the eighth, too. Aaron Judge ripped his third postseason home run off of Brad Peacock, taking a 425-footer out to the train in left field to spoil the Astros’ shutout. That was the only real break the Yankees got, however, as Altuve, Alex Bregman and Evan Gattis returned in the bottom of the inning to tack on another four runs, including Altuve’s solo shot off of David Robertson:

Ken Giles handled the ninth, expending 23 pitches and giving up a base hit and a walk before retiring Frazier and Headley to end the game. Thanks to Houston’s winning efforts, the two teams will compete in their first seven-game Championship Series since 2004 — and this time, at least one of them is guaranteed to come away with a win.

Game 7 of the ALCS is set for Saturday at 8:00 PM ET. Houston right-hander Charlie Morton (14-7, 3.62 ERA) is scheduled to face southpaw CC Sabathia (14-5, 3.69 ERA).