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For the Washington Nationals, close playoff losses are a familiar refrain

Looking back on the 2017 campaign and how it all ended for the Washington Nationals...

MLB: NLDS-Chicago Cubs at Washington Nationals Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

366 days ago to the day, I walked down South Capitol Street to New Jersey Avenue, all the way up towards the power plant next to the Democratic National Committee headquarters, the closest parking spot to the ballpark my dad and I had been able to find that wouldn’t cause my parents to dip into their retirement funds.

“What do they have to do differently?,” I asked my dad in panic and exasperation, fully knowing he didn’t have the answer. “What could they possibly do differently to change this narrative?”

The answer eventually revealed itself in the box scores over the coming days, weeks, and months: It became apparent that no starting pitcher, aside from Max Scherzer in Game 5, when it was too late, went long enough to give the majority of the bullpen a day off, leaving the group exhausted and incompetent.

It was enough to turn consistent relievers into inconsistent ones, and more than enough to make Shawn Kelley’s elbow fall off for an important at-bat (and apparently an entire season).

By the time the once-reliable bullpen had gotten through the fateful seventh inning of what was once a 1-0 game, Los Angeles led 4-1.

Yes, that crew had gotten it done for the previous four games. But those four games were taxing enough that when it really, really mattered, they came up short.

This year, there was no such glaring weakness heading into Game 5. In the majority of the games, the offense showed up. The starting pitching went deep into the game consistently, and Dusty Baker didn’t overuse any one reliever. However, I found myself walking that same walk towards Capitol Hill, trying to figure out what exactly had just happened. What, uh, did happen?

First, before painfully re-hashing this loss one last time, it should be noted that it can’t really be blamed on Baker, who absolutely deserves to return next season.

He ultimately pulled most of the right strings in mainly the right order. However, it didn’t matter what notes Baker played; it turned out to be hard to play Beethoven on a shattered violin.

For instance: When the Nats handed the ball to Gio Gonzalez to start the game, his last performance was an impressive one in Game 2 following a stellar bounceback season.

Despite that, he only lasted three innings in Game 5, and quickly squandered a three run lead that Michael A. Taylor handed to him, leaving the game up 4-3. But how could Baker have known?

Or, after Matt Albers had quickly sat down the Cubs in the top of the fourth with his spot due up soon, Baker could’ve allowed Albers, who only needed sixteen pitches to get through the fourth, to throw another inning and hit for himself, perhaps also pleasing the baseball gods with a rare Albers at-bat.

But, seeing an opportunity to build his lead, Baker pinch hit for Albers. Then again, why wouldn’t he? Dusty had an ace in the hole, as Max Scherzer was available out of the bullpen.

And, to be excruciatingly clear: If you had approached Dusty Baker before the game and told him that he would’ve needed to get a 4-3 lead to the back end of the bullpen, and the man that would be tasked with the job would be Max Scherzer, he—hell, any Nats fan in the world—would have taken that 100 times out of 100.

Unfortunately, Scherzer, for one reason or another, perhaps a hamstring that wasn’t ready for short rest, perhaps something else, imploded.

Then Matt Wieters imploded in front of him, and then the Major League Baseball rulebook imploded in front of everyone.

From there, there were also a few things that Baker would’ve taken every time as well — a lazy looper going into left field to Jayson Werth, runners on first and second for clutch pinch hitter Adam Lind, runners on first and second for Trea Turner — that all somehow went awry too.

And sure, there may have been a few decisions he could’ve made differently, pinch hitting some people in a few different places, walking a man here, pulling a pitcher there. But in the tortuous ride that is a 9-8 winner-take-all game, one moment can almost never account for the entire story.

Most of the decisions Baker made were the right ones, as were the majority of the ones Cubs’ manager Joe Maddon made.

But the Nationals were sloppy, and couldn’t capitalize on the Cubs’ errors, when the Cubs were more than able to do so on the Nats’ mistakes, as they scored in nearly every conceivable way, bringing runners home on wild pitches, groundouts, errors, strikeouts, hit by pitches, and the occasional hit.

It was not just one thing like it was last year — instead, Thursday’s loss was a total and utter implosion.

There was no explanation for why a team that had been so sharp all year on defense suddenly forgot how to field a baseball. But it happened, and now the team has to live with it until next October.

Cut back to that walk up New Jersey Avenue.

I was certainly less distraught than I had been last time through, this time chuckling to myself about just how similar everything was to the last time around.

I mean, come on, I said to myself — a blown lead, a breakout inning, a closer that went for seven outs, and a sad montage on the jumbotron of pictures of bases accompanied by twangy guitar music — how could it be more similar?

And, perhaps due to the beneficiary effects of a post-fifth inning walk around the deserted ramps of the third deck, and a few cries out to the heavens (which were something to the effect of “Every [fricking] year!), I was able to shrug it off instead of hang my head for the next twenty four hours.

Also helpful: Accepting that the Nats were going to lose once the fifth inning had ended. By the eighth, the idea of a comeback was playing with house money, a bonus on what had already been a tumultuous night.

But nights like that leave everyone—myself included—scrambling for answers, trying to figure out what went wrong. What can they do differently next time? What can change? In the eternal words of Martin Sheen/Jed Bartlet, what’s next?

For one thing, a healthy Scherzer wouldn’t have hurt — having him go Game 1 and Strasburg Game 2 would’ve meant that Strasburg could’ve gotten the ball on Thursday night, perhaps eliminating the wild ride that was Gio Gonzalez’s three-inning outing.

But what can the Nats control next year? There’s no guarantee that Scherzer will be as good, that Strasburg will be as healthy next time around.

For one thing, they can try and find a way to learn how to win close games. Every game that the Nats have won in October since Jayson Werth’s Game 4 walk-off in 2012 has been by three runs or more.

On the other hand, all but one October game that they’ve lost since 2012’s Game 5 loss has been by one run. The three losses to the Cubs? 3-0 (a break from the pattern), 2-1, and 9-8. Their two wins? 6-3, and 5-0. Against Los Angeles? The losses: 4-3, 6-5, 4-3. The wins: 5-2, 8-3.

Which is to say: October is not won in a blowout. It is won with clutch hitting, great pitching, a little luck, and capitalizing on a few mistakes. The World Series isn’t won with grand slams or nine-run blowouts. It’s 9-8, 8-7 wins, or sometimes 3-2, 5-4 wins.

Ultimately, those close games with great pitching and hitting around every bend are games the Nats get considerably less exposure to in the regular season due to their placement in the NL East, which is going to be in its rebuilding phase until the end of time.

On the other hand, Chicago gets to practice with the Brewers and Cardinals all season long. It’s hard to know how Washington can learn to win those games, but they’ll have to do it to make it out of the NLDS.

So, with that in mind, there is something positive the Nats can take away from 2012, 2016, and 2017: The Cubs, some 100 or so years into their curse, fielded two great teams in 2007 and 2008. Those teams were both swept in the NLDS without much of a fight.

Which is to say that the experience of long, drawn out playoff games, as horrible as they are, is something to appreciate — because watching 43,000 men, women and children wave their rally towels like it’s the last thing they’ll ever do for four straight hours is something to behold.

Winning a playoff series is difficult — ask anyone, Chicago included. It could be a long time before the Nats do it. Maybe it’ll be next year. Maybe it’ll be 2027, when grizzled veteran Trea Turner helps manager Max Scherzer lead the team into the World Series.

But for those Cubs fans, who endured this special kind of torture that we in Washington are growing more and more accustomed to by the year, hope still sprung semi-eternal for some 108 years. The fans kept showing up, and the team eventually learned to win those close games, and then won eleven of them en route to a parade.

However, long before that parade, Eddie Vedder recorded a song at the request of Ernie Banks, “All The Way,” where he notes that “someday, we’ll go all the way.” Poetic? Not really. Meaningful? If you’re from the North Side, absolutely.

Those words—”someday, we’ll go all the way”—apply for every team in Major League Baseball; one year, the Rays, the Mariners, the Rangers, who have never won it all, the White Sox and Reds, the laughingstocks of the league, and yes, the Nationals — will win it all.

In the meantime, all we can do is wait, and enjoy the magnificent mayhem that is postseason baseball.