The Nationals have been in the postseason in four out of the last six years. They still have yet to win a playoff series. They officially became the Nationals (nee Expos) in 2005, but missed the playoffs up until 2012. After each playoff exit, the club’s manager faced scrutiny. Davey Johnson lasted just one more season after losing in 2012. Matt Williams had one more year after the Nats lost in 2014. Dusty Baker was at the helm each of the last two seasons in which they failed in the playoffs and he’ll be under the microscope for the next week or so in the aftermath of the NLDS.
Nationals fans and detractors alike can pinpoint specific moments of abject failure. In 2012, it was closer Drew Storen giving up two two-run singles to the Cardinals in the ninth inning, erasing a two-run lead and creating a two-run deficit. In 2014, it was Joe Panik scoring the go-ahead run in the seventh inning on an Aaron Barrett wild pitch. In 2016, it was the Nationals’ inability to solve closer Clayton Kershaw — what? — after he relieved Kenley Jansen in the ninth. This time, it was Jose Lobaton straying just a bit too far from the first base bag and being nabbed on a microscopic infraction, popping his foot off the first base bag for a microsecond.
Three of the four playoff series the Nationals have played over the last six years have gone to a decisive fifth game. The Nats have been plenty competitive and they have been able to hang with any team, but a combination of bad luck, bad timing, and bad execution have led to zero playoff series wins. For example, the run differential for the Nationals and Giants in the 2014 NLDS was zero, each team scored nine runs. In the 2016 NLDS, the Nationals outscored the Dodgers 24-19. This year, the Nationals outscored the Cubs 20-17 in the NLDS.
The Nationals made many mistakes in Game 5 of the NLDS on Thursday evening. But so, too, did the Cubs. The Cubs had slightly better timing and as such have earned the right to play in the NLCS. One has to feel bad for Nationals fans, who have come so close to tasting playoff success in recent years but have never actually gotten there. Branch Rickey once said that “baseball is a game of inches” and no team knows that better than the Nationals.