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New foe awaits Washington Nationals in NLDS, and it’s time to capitalize

The Chicago Cubs await the Washington Nationals in the NLDS, putting the pressure on the NL East champions to prove they can compete with fellow NL contenders in the playoffs.

MLB: Los Angeles Dodgers at Washington Nationals Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

The Washington Nationals finally broke their pattern of making the playoffs every other year, grabbing their fourth NL East crown in six years with an impressive follow- up to last season’s campaign. They’re getting a new opponent once again in the Chicago Cubs, completing their run through the National League contender gauntlet.

Since the Nats first became a postseason team in 2012, five clubs from the Senior Circuit have made the playoffs at least three times: Nats, Dodgers, Cardinals, Giants and Cubs. After going 0-3 against Los Angeles, St. Louis and San Francisco in their first three NLDS appearances, Washington now has a date with Chicago — the only team in that group it hasn’t faced in the postseason.

“I’m really looking forward to this one,” GM Mike Rizzo said on 106.7 the FAN in D.C.’s Sports Junkies. “I grew up on Waveland Avenue in Chicago my whole life. It would be great to knock these guys out of the playoffs.”

The Nats’ 2012 loss to the Cardinals was a result of the infamous Drew Storen Game 5 meltdown. In 2014, their offense was simply baffled by the Giants’ pitching staff. Last season, it took Clayton Kershaw coming out of the bullpen on two days’ rest for the Dodgers to make it into the NLCS.

The Giants eventually went on to win the World Series, while the Cardinals and Dodgers each lost to the eventual champions in the next round.

Whether they were the favorites (2012, 2014) or the underdogs (2016), the Nats have struggled to get over that NLDS hump. They’ve had three different managers, three different starters take the mound in Game 1 and three different players lead the team in WAR over the course of the regular season.

Now, the Nationals are tasked with knocking the reigning world champs out of the playoffs, the second time they’ve attempted to do so. Regardless of whether or not you subscribe to the idea that the Nats’ window of contention closes if Bryce Harper departs via free agency, the pressure is on this team to win now.

Washington has not yet extended manager Dusty Baker a contract for next season. Both Ryan Zimmerman and Gio Gonzalez are having career years after seeing their numbers decline over the past four seasons. Max Scherzer and Daniel Murphy are both on the wrong side of 30, leaving a level of uncertainty as to how long they’ll be able to produce at elite levels.

It’s a bit of a stretch to say the Nats have wasted the first five years of the Harper era — the team’s had the second most wins in the MLB over that span while winning an MVP, Cy Young, Rookie of the Year and two Manager of the Year awards — but the only way to shake off the critics is by winning the pennant.

The Nats are getting a shot at another perennial NL contender, and now is the time to capitalize. The circumstances are different, but that’s nothing new. The biggest caveat to the team’s success has been its inability to go deep into October, yet that can all change if the Nats’ now-healthy roster can put it all together.