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

Associated Press
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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.

Biden praises Braves’ ‘unstoppable, joyful run’ to 2021 win

Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports
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WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden said the Atlanta Braves will be “forever known as the upset kings of October” for their improbable 2021 World Series win, as he welcomed the team to the White House for a victory celebration.

Biden called the Braves’ drive an “unstoppable, joyful run.” The team got its White House visit in with just over a week left before the 2022 regular season wraps up and the Major League Baseball playoffs begin again. The Braves trail the New York Mets by 1.5 games in the National League East but have clinched a wildcard spot for the MLB playoffs that begin Oct. 7. Chief Executive Officer Terry McGuirk said he hoped they’d be back to the White House again soon.

In August 2021, the Braves were a mess, playing barely at .500. But then they started winning. And they kept it up, taking the World Series in six games over the Houston Astros.

Biden called their performance of “history’s greatest turnarounds.”

“This team has literally been part of American history for over 150 years,” said Biden. “But none of it came easy … people counting you out. Heck, I know something about being counted out.”

Players lined up on risers behind Biden, grinning and waving to the crowd, but the player most discussed was one who hasn’t been on the team in nearly 50 years and who died last year: Hall of Famer Hank Aaron.

Hammerin’ Hank was the home run king for 33 years, dethroning Babe Ruth with a shot to left field on April 8, 1974. He was one of the most famous players for Atlanta and in baseball history, a clear-eyed chronicler of the hardships thrown his way – from the poverty and segregation of his Alabama youth to the racist threats he faced during his pursuit of one of America’s most hallowed records. He died in January at 86.

“This is team is defined by the courage of Hank Aaron,” Biden said.

McGuirk said Aaron, who held front office positions with the team and was one of Major League Baseball’s few Black executives, was watching over them.

“He’d have been there every step of the way with us if he was here,” McGuirk added.

The president often honors major league and some college sports champions with a White House ceremony, typically a nonpartisan affair in which the commander in chief pays tribute to the champs’ prowess, poses for photos and comes away with a team jersey.

Those visits were highly charged in the previous administration. Many athletes took issue with President Donald Trump’s policies and rhetoric on policing, immigration and more. Trump, for his part, didn’t take kindly to criticism from athletes or their on-field expressions of political opinions.

Under Biden, the tradition appears to be back. He’s hosted the NBA champion Milwaukee Bucks and Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers at the White House. On Monday he joked about first lady Jill Biden’s Philadelphia allegiances.

“Like every Philly fan, she’s convinced she knows more about everything in sports than anybody else,” he said. He added that he couldn’t be too nice to the Atlanta team because it had just beaten the Phillies the previous night in extra innings.

Press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre was later questioned about the team’s name, particularly as other professional sports teams have moved away from names – like the Cleveland Indians, now the Guardians, and the Washington Redskins, now the Commanders – following years of complaints from Native American groups over the images and symbols.

She said it was important for the country to have the conversation. “And Native American and Indigenous voices – they should be at the center of this conversation,” she said.

Biden supported MLB’s decision to pull the 2021 All-Star Game from Atlanta to protest Georgia’s sweeping new voting law, which critics contend is too restrictive.