The Washington nationals entered the late-September stretch run with the best record in baseball. That means the nation's capital will host postseason play for the first time since 1933, when FDR was tossing first pitches. But in the tradition of Washington's tortured baseball history--the Nationals have struggled since arriving from Montreal in 2005; the old Washington Senators stank for decades before leaving D.C., twice--success comes with a cruel twist.
The Nats will enter the playoffs without one of their star players--by choice. Starting-pitching phenom Stephen Strasburg was benched in early September, having neared his preassigned limit of 180 innings of work for the season. Most big-league pitchers can handle a heavier load, but Strasburg, 24, underwent reconstructive elbow surgery two years ago. The Nats didn't want to overtax his arm, risking reinjury and long-term damage. So the team stuck to its blueprint, even though Washington, which finished 21 games out of first last season, surprised the pundits and rocketed to the top. "We kind of went from zero to one pretty quick," says Nats starting pitcher Ross Detwiler. Oops.
Plenty of long-suffering D.C. baseball fans protested the decision. In a short playoff series, Strasburg's arm--especially his wicked changeup--might make the difference. "I want to win. God, it's been 80 freaking years," says journalist Mark Judge, whose grandfather Joe Judge played first base on Washington's only World Series winner, the 1924 Senators. "That's the bottom line. It's hard to win a World Series. We have one flag. I want a second flag out there, O.K.?"
Rooting for the nats provided the summer's only bipartisan consensus in politically divided Washington. "Anywhere you go, you see Nationals gear," says Nats relief pitcher Craig Stammen. "You used to have to tell people who the Nationals were." Attendance is up more than 20%, while in-stadium merchandise sales are up 100%. The team's social-media following has skyrocketed. Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor and General David Petraeus have stopped by to chat. "Everyone is sniping at each other here all the time," says television commentator Cokie Roberts, a longtime D.C.-area resident. "The Nationals have become a wonderfully optimistic distraction. We needed it."
The Nationals could teach politicians a thing or two about teamwork. Even without Strasburg--who went 15-6 and remains second among major league starters in strikeouts per nine innings--Washington's pitching is the envy of baseball. Last winter, the team acquired top-line starter Gio Gonzalez and his roundhouse curveball from Oakland in a trade. He became the first pitcher this season to reach 20 wins and is flirting with a Cy Young Award. The bullpen has shone. On the base paths, rookie call-up Bryce Harper, the Nats' newest phenom, gives fielders jitters on routine ground balls since he motors down the line as if a tornado were tailing him. "He's one of those dudes," says Nats pitcher Edwin Jackson, "who's going to be hustling on every play." Harper, the top overall pick in the 2010 draft, is just 19; he has slugged 19 home runs and delivered on all the hype.