Even though the postseason is a month long, for the Washington Nationals, this October has been a non-stop roller coaster of emotions without time to breathe.
Fresh off of a dramatic first playoff series win since the franchise moved to the nation’s capital, they now turn right around for an NLCS showdown with the St. Louis Cardinals, starting today, for the right to represent the senior circuit in the World Series.
The Nats have been able to slay one of their dragons already. The playoff series bugaboo is a thing of the past. Next, they need to try and exorcise the demon that started it all.
No Nationals fan needs reminding of how painful the 2012 NLDS against the Cardinals was.
It wasn’t so much the end result against a more experienced postseason outfit, it was the way that it happened — thanks again, Drew Storen — that continues to leave a bitter taste in the mouth of those associated with the organization.
There are only two players who were on that 2012 NLDS roster that are set to face the Cardinals once again. Kurt Suzuki and Ryan Zimmerman are the two holdovers, even if the former left in 2013 before returning last winter.
“I mean, that was a long time ago,” Zimmerman told reporters on a conference call ahead of the NLCS. “I always say 2012 was such a fun year because we weren’t supposed to be good for another year or two after that.”
All the Nationals had really known up until 2012 was losing. They had not had a single winning season since moving to D.C., so the group that broke the mold will always hold a special place in the hearts of fans.
The 2019 team will almost certainly have a place there too. Not only have they been the first to get over the hump™️, but they’ve also been having as much fun as any of their predecessors with dugout dancing, Baby Shark hand signals, shirtless champagne parties, you name it.
“That group of guys sort of reminds me of this group that we have,” Zimmerman explained. “We kind of got on a roll that year unexpectedly and just kind of ran with it.
“And then we had some veteran guys that kept everyone loose, we had a lot of fun on that team, we did some silly things, we made fun of each other, nobody was safe, I always said on that team.
“So there’s definitely some comparisons as far as the character of that team.”
Even though there are plenty of comparisons drawn with the 2012 incarnation of the Nationals, this team is made up of more grizzled veterans compared to a young, fresh playoff-hopeful that the Nats represented the first go around.
“Every team’s different,” Zimmerman said. “What we have done with this team, I don’t think is comparable to anyone else.”
Despite new teammates around him, there are a few things that Zimmerman feels like he can draw off in order to help him dispel the original ghosts of the team’s NLDS failure.
“As far as what I take out of that,” Zimmerman said, “I think more kind of that feel than the actual series.
“Every series is different and so many things have changed since then and the experience that a lot of us have is so much different. So, yeah, it’s a fun city to play in, I remember the games there were awesome, it was obviously one of the best baseball towns in the country, so it should be a fun environment.
“Like I said about this series and these big games, this is why you play the game, to be involved in series and games like this.”
While it’s only Suzuki and Zimmerman who are on this year’s team that were on the 2012 NLDS roster, there is one other player still here from that team who didn’t make the roster.
Stephen Strasburg was infamously shut down for 2012 playoffs after his first full season returning from Tommy John surgery in 2010 in order to preserve him for future seasons.
The right-hander will no doubt play a huge factor in this series as he’s likely going to start the third game while also being lined up for a potential winner-take-all Game 7.
Seven years later, Strasburg will finally get his chance to face the Cardinals in October, something that Zimmerman is looking forward to this time around.
“A lot better to have him on the team for the playoffs,” Zimmerman said. “I think what we did in 2012 is the reason why he is the type of pitcher he is now.
“Obviously I don’t make those decisions. In 2012 it was a highly-debated issue, but I think at that point as tough as a decision it was for them to not pitch him, I think they honestly were looking out for the best interests of the player.”
As the longtime National says, it was a highly contentious move at the time given the immediate impact it had on them moving forward. Who knows how far that team would’ve gone had they decided to push Strasburg beyond the limits.
Since that fateful decision, there have been teams in a similar spot going the other direction.
The most notable was Matt Harvey with the New York Mets in 2015. The right-hander was on the road to becoming the face of a revamped pitching staff that carried them all the way to the World Series, only to lose to Kansas City Royals in the Fall Classic.
However, though it may not entirely be because of that decision, Harvey’s performance has declined significantly since then. Over the last four seasons, Harvey has put up a lofty 5.65 ERA in 80 appearances while bouncing around between a few teams.
Though the situations do have some differences, perhaps seeing how other pitchers are performing since being pushed, it does help to vindicate the shutdown somewhat.
“You have seen some guys that have tried to push that limit coming back from that surgery,” Zimmerman said, “and things haven’t turned out too well.
“So I think in the moment it was a tough decision and maybe not a very popular decision, but you can also say that Stephen wouldn’t be the pitcher that he is now or be doing what he is now if they didn’t make that decision.”
Strasburg will also be accompanied by his fellow rotation members in Max Scherzer, Patrick Corbin, and Aníbal Sánchez, giving them a huge advantage over the Cardinals on that front.
Facing the Nationals this time around will be a completely different prospect than it was seven years ago, even if a Storen-esque meltdown isn’t off the table with the bullpen.
The Nats will keep grinding and staying in the fight, much like the Cardinals did when they won their World Series in 2011 and when they handed the Nationals their first postseason series loss in 2012.
This matchup is one that not many had as the contest to decide who will represent the National League in the Fall Classic. The Cardinals are up to their usual shenanigans in October, while the Nationals are hoping to keep up their dragon-slaying ways. Buckle up.