CHICAGO — Apparently, Mother Nature is no match for the capital curse.
On Tuesday, it looked for all the world as if rain would give the Washington Nationals — and the city of Washington, D.C. — the break that they so sorely needed. Rain was going to postpone Game 4 of the NLDS, pushing the contest from Tuesday to Wednesday, thereby making it possible for Nats manager Dusty Baker to shelve No. 4 starter Tanner Roark and instead send Stephen Strasburg to the hill.
Surely, this was a gift from the heavens. After all, Strasburg has been the best pitcher in the National League since the All-Star break. He continued that dominance into the playoffs, when he started Game 1 against the Cubs and tallied 10 strikeouts over seven innings without giving up an earned run. And now, with Washington on the verge of elimination, Baker was going to have the good fortune to be able to use Strasburg again in Game 4. Until he wasn’t.
As it turns out, sometime between his Game 1 gem and Tuesday’s deluge, Strasburg got sick. It’s unclear just how ill he is or what the exact nature of his malady is, but it’s bad enough that Baker and the Nationals decided to stick with Roark, whose ERA this season was more than two runs higher than Strasburg’s. Just like that, the gift was erased by the curse.
If you’re unfamiliar with the capital curse, it goes a little something like this: Since moving to D.C. from Montreal in 2005, the Nationals have lost in the first round three times in three postseason appearances. Each time, they’ve been the higher seed, and each time they’ve been bounced in gut-wrenching fashion.
In 2012 against the Cardinals, with Washington one out away from advancing to the NLCS, closer Drew Storen blew a two-run lead in the ninth inning of Game 5.
In 2014 against the Giants, Storen relieved starter Jordan Zimmermann in the ninth inning of Game 2 — even though Zimmermann was one out away from pitching a shutout — and proceeded to give up two hits and the tying run, after which San Francisco went on to win in 18 innings before ousting the Nats in four games.
In 2016, Washington lost heavy-hitting catcher Wilson Ramos to a freak ACL injury in the final week of the season, then fell to the Dodgers, who won Games 4 and 5 after both contests were tied late.
But wait, there’s more. The capital curse isn’t just confined to baseball (and thanks to Sarah Langs of ESPN Stats & Information for the SparkNotes here). The District’s four major sports teams have combined to lose 15 straight postseason series when a trip to the league semifinals was at stake. If the Nationals aren’t able to come back against the Cubs, it would extend D.C.’s drought to 69 consecutive seasons completed without a conference championship appearance.
The schneid goes all the way back to 1998, when the Capitals made it to the Stanley Cup Final. That’s by far the longest streak in the sports biz (Cincinnati is currently second with 44 seasons). If that weren’t enough, no Washington baseball team has won a playoff series since the Senators rallied to beat the Giants 4-3 in 12 innings in Game 7 of the World Series — in 1924.
Nearly a century later, the 2017 Nationals — who won 97 games and clinched their division earlier than any team in 15 years — seemed to be as good a bet as any to break the curse. But on the next-to-last day of the regular season, almost exactly a year after Wilson Ramos‘ knee went kaplooey, ace Max Scherzer tweaked his hamstring, once again casting doubt over the team’s playoff prospects.
Trailing 2-1 in a series where nothing seemed to be going their way — they’re the first team to lose two games in the same postseason in which they no-hit their opponent for at least five innings — the Nationals were badly in needed of a break, and they got one with Tuesday’s rainout. Or so it seemed.
But hey, just because the curse intervened and Strasburg was effectively scratched from Game 4 doesn’t mean the Nats are toast. Because Tanner Roark.
It’s easy to look at Roark’s 4.67 ERA and think that Washington doesn’t stand a chance against the Cubs, who feature a loaded lineup and will have former Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta on the hill for Game 4. But Roark has made a career out of defying the odds.
“He has that warrior mentality,” Baker said earlier this week of Roark. “He doesn’t make any excuses or alibis. He just goes out and pitches, and this guy has not had an easy road.”
A former 25th-round pick, Roark elbowed his way into Washington’s starting rotation in 2014, then proceeded to win 15 games and post a sub-3.00 ERA. But when the already pitching-rich Nats inked Scherzer to a $210 million deal that offseason, Roark was unceremoniously booted to the bullpen, where he struggled in 2015.
Last season, Baker’s first with the Nationals, Roark rejoined the rotation, where he went 16-10 with a 2.83 ERA and even finished 10th in the Cy Young balloting. Included in those 16 wins were eye-catching victories against Madison Bumgarner and Johnny Cueto. Those two W’s earned Roark a bit of a reputation as a giant-killer, as did a May no-decision in which he outpitched Arrieta at Wrigley Field.
A year and a half later, it’s Roark vs. Arrieta, Round 2, only with a whole lot more at stake. Once again, they’ll do battle at Wrigley Field, an hour north of Wilmington, Illinois, where Roark grew up rooting for the Cubs and where he has always performed well. Just like last year, he’ll have family there. Just like last year, he’ll be looking to prove people wrong.
One thing he’s not looking to prove? That he’s Strasburg.
“Just do what I do best,” Roark said, “and try to keep them quiet.”
If he can do that, it’ll go a long way toward quieting the curse.