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Game 5 loss for Washington Nationals echoes Senators’ 1925 World Series defeat...

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Both the 1925 Senators and 2017 Nationals had their ace on mound in decisive inning and were undone by a pair of errors by a single player...

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The World Series starts this week in Los Angeles, making it 84 years since Washington last appeared in one. With another heartbreaking postseason loss this month – the fourth time in the last six years – DC baseball fans are starting to wonder if they’re cursed.

If they are, it didn’t start with Pete Kozma and the 2012 National League Division Series loss. No, this city’s postseason futility dates back nearly a century, to Game 7 of the 1925 World Series, which Washington lost in a bizarrely similar way as the Nats did to the Cubs this year. The 1925 Fall Classic marked the first time Washington lost a postseason baseball series, and DC has lost every one since.

The Senators dropped that deciding World Series game 93 years ago by a score of 9-7, nearly identical to this year’s 9-8 loss at Nats Park. But that’s just one similarity. Others include:

  • Both Washington teams relied on their ace pitcher who couldn’t hold a lead in the decisive inning (Walter Johnson and Max Scherzer)
  • Both Johnson and Scherzer were recovering from injuries
  • Both Washington teams were victimized by a pair of errors by a single player, which led to unearned runs that were more than the margin of victory
  • Both teams coughed up multiple-run leads
  • In both games, the go-ahead rally started with two outs and nobody on base

The New York Times called the ’25 World Series finale the “wettest, weirdest, and wildest game that 50 years of baseball has ever seen.” Cubs manager Joe Maddon called the Nats-Cubs Game 5 “bizarro world,” while recently deposed Nats manager Dusty Baker called his team’s fifth-inning meltdown “probably one of the weirdest innings I’ve ever seen.”

One key difference – in 1925, Washington fans hadn’t yet been traumatized by multiple postseason breakdowns. In fact, the year before, the Senators, aka Nationals, had won their first pennant and went on to upset the New York Giants in the World Series. Walter Johnson lost his first two World Series starts in that Fall Classic, but won Game 7 after coming out the bullpen to pitch four scoreless innings.

The ’25 World Series would be a mirror image: The Big Train, 37, won his first two starts against the Pittsburgh Pirates, helping Washington to a three games to one lead, but lost Game 7, which was played a day later than scheduled because of a rainout.

It was a dark and rainy afternoon when the two teams squared off on a wet and muddy field at Pittsburgh’s Forbes Field in front of about 43,000 fans for the final game. The conditions were so bad that the grounds crew burned gasoline to remove moisture from the infield, and puddles pockmarked the soggy outfield.

Forbes Field, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, during the 1925 World Series.
Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, LC-USZ62-98704 (b&w film copy neg.)

Johnson got workers to pour sawdust on the pitcher’s mound to improve his traction; towels were brought to hitters at home plate to improve their grip. Players had to contend with ankle-deep mud and soaked baseballs. When a particularly black cloud appeared overhead, “it was impossible to distinguish the players in the outfield,” the Washington Post reported.

Johnson was not 100 percent when he took the mound to start game 7. In his previous start, he had suffered a strained leg while trying to stretch a single into a double. But he got plenty of early support in Game 7. Like the Nats, who jumped out to a 4-1 lead, the Senators spotted Johnson a 4-0 advantage, and led 6-3 at the halfway point.

In the bottom of the fifth, the Pirates scored another run off Johnson to make it 6-4. Two innings later, they tied it up with two unearned runs, on a rally that started with Senators shortstop Roger Peckinpaugh dropping a popup. Peckinpaugh made temporary amends in the top of the eighth with a home run into temporary stands in left field, giving Washington a 7–6 lead.

When Johnson took the mound in the bottom of the eighth, he got two quick outs, just like Scherzer did in the fateful fifth inning of the NLDS. But two doubles, a walk, and yet another error by Peckinpaugh – this time on a throw – led to three runs and a 9-7 Pittsburgh lead. The game-winning blow was a two-run double by future Hall-of-Famer Kiki Cuyler.

Two of the three runs in the eighth were unearned because of Peckinpaugh’s error – incredibly, his eighth error of the series, although he later complained that "some of them were stinko calls by the scorer.” The Bucs retired the Senators in the ninth to finish out the come-from-behind win.

So a year after celebrating their first World Series championship down Pennsylvania Ave., the Senators saw their hopes to repeat slip out of their hands in Pennsylvania.

Griffith Stadium, Washington D.C., during the 1925 World Series.
Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, LC-DIG-npcc-27288

Ironically, Peckinpaugh’s defense had cost his team the championship just a few weeks after he won the 1925 American League MVP award, in recognition of his defense and leadership. And the previous year, he had been a World Series hero, batting .417 and playing stellar defense despite playing injured.

Johnson’s reversal was also stark, losing the deciding World Series game a year after winning it. The ’25 loss would be his final Fall Classic appearance, and his stats line for Game 7 wasn’t pretty: eight innings, 15 hits, nine runs (five earned), one walk and three strikeouts. But it would have been good enough to win without his shortstop’s miscues – assuming Washington would have shut down Pittsburgh in the bottom of the ninth.

Unlike the Senators, the Nats didn’t start their ace in the deciding game this year, but Scherzer was their ace in the hole. He entered the game in the fifth inning with a 4-3 lead, and he too couldn’t close the door. Scherzer gave up four runs in his sole inning, but half of those were unearned because of two errors by catcher Matt Wieters (not to mention his passed ball on a strikeout). If you subtract those unearned runs, Washington wins, 8-7.

Both Scherzer, who had tweaked his hamstring in his final regular season start, and Johnson, who had strained his leg in the series, were recovering from injuries. Johnson’s appears to have been the more serious one. As the Post put it at the time, the Senators “were forced to rely upon a tired pitcher who was barely able, because of injury, to stand.”

Both Washington managers were second-guessed in the aftermath of their losses, and Nats manager Dusty Baker probably lost his job over the defeat. Bucky Harris, the Senators 28-year-old player-manager, had a bad series both in the dugout and at bat, going just 2 for 23 (.087), although he played errorless baseball at second base. American League president Ban Johnson accused him of sacrificing “a World’s Championship for our league through your display of mawkish sentiment,” by not taking Johnson out of the game.

That “World’s Championship” loss started a run of six postseason defeats for Washington. The team went on to lose the 1933 World Series, and the Nats have now lost four consecutive postseason series. Maybe it is time to start talking about curses.

Frederic J. Frommer is the author of “You Gotta Have Heart,” a history of Washington baseball, from which some of this is story is based, and head of the Sports Business Practice at the Dewey Square Group, a public affairs firm. Follow him @ffrommer.