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  • It took a miraculous comeback for the Nationals to salvage Game 2 of the NLDS—the type of comeback that's long avoided a franchise used to October failure. Bryce Harper and Ryan Zimmerman powered Washington past the Cubs, teasing the idea that this Nationals team could be the one to finally win a postseason series.
By Jon Tayler
October 08, 2017

WASHINGTON, D.C.—Usually, when Nationals reliever Ryan Madson comes out of a game, he heads straight for the team’s clubhouse, where he can ice, stretch, and otherwise decompress after his outing. But as he was pulled from the top of the eighth inning of Game 2 of the NLDS, leaving incoming reliever Oliver Perez to deal with a man on and Anthony Rizzo at the plate with one out, he decided to stay put in the dugout. Despite his team’s predicament—Washington trailed the Cubs, 3–1, and had only two innings left to avoid falling into an 0–2 series hole—Madson had a feeling that something good was on the horizon, and he didn’t want to miss it. “I wanted to stay out there, because I didn’t think we were going to lose,” he said afterward.

Madson’s optimism is admirable, but given the history of his team, it can’t help but feel quixotic. As far as Nationals postseason memories go, you can count the happy ones on one hand and the bad ones on all the fingers and toes of the 43,860 people who were in attendance at Nationals Park on Saturday night. Since baseball returned to the nation’s capital in 2005, the playoffs have been nasty, brutish and short for Washington: three NL East titles followed by three first-round exits, most of which were marked by bullpen meltdowns, snuffed-out rallies and blown lead after blown lead. When the Nationals make the playoffs, the fans don’t wonder how far they’ll go, but when things will come to a bitter end. This NLDS against Chicago seemed no different: Having slept-walk through a shutout Game 1 loss to Kyle Hendricks and an equally dispiriting Game 2 effort against Jon Lester, this team looked to be just the latest entry into D.C.’s long litany of postseason flops.

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Madson, though, wasn’t thinking about history as he walked off the mound; he just figured his team was due. So he found himself a spot at the dugout railing and waited. He clapped as Perez got Rizzo to ground into a double play. He cheered as pinch-hitter Adam Lind opened the bottom of the frame with a single. He shouted encouragement, yelling “Great swing, great swing,” even as the guys on the bench razzed him for acting as if he knew anything about hitting. But as Trea Turner swung through a Carl Edwards Jr. curveball for the first out of the inning to the roar of Cubs fans scattered throughout the stands and to unhappy groans from those decked in red and white, it looked as if Madson would be the latest to learn that the Nationals and the postseason never mix well.

But all it took was two swings from a pair of franchise icons—one from Bryce Harper, the second from Ryan Zimmerman—to make Madson a prophet. The Nationals’ eighth-inning rally, keyed by home runs from Harper and Zimmerman, didn’t just save their season; it also served as the hope that maybe, just maybe, this could be the team to break Washington’s ugly cycle of October failure. Faced with the unpleasant prospect of having to win three straight games against the defending World Series champions to survive and advance, the Nationals finally got the clutch hits that have seemed to elude them every single year as they seek to win the first playoff series in the 48-year history of a franchise that has known nothing but sadness.

“We’d been waiting for that moment to happen,” Madson said of Harper’s and Zimmerman’s home runs. So have the fans. The only thing more predictable in D.C. than rush-hour traffic on the Beltway is the Nationals running into roadblocks in the first round. In 2012, it was the Cardinals rallying from a 0–2 deficit and winning Game 5 with four runs in the ninth. In ’14, it was the Giants who shattered the Nationals’ spirit, with their 18-inning Game 2 victory as the series’ turning point. And last year, it was the Dodgers who did the honors, as Clayton Kershaw got the postseason monkey off his back by putting it on Washington’s. Each season's playoffs seemed to bring new demons and no sign of any hero.

You can now add Harper to that second pantheon.Since his debut on April 28, 2012 at 19 years of age, he has had many titles—No. 1 pick, super-prospect, Rookie of the Year, MVP, prodigy, lightning rod—but not “postseason performer. Entering Saturday’s game, he had hit just .213/.314/.492 in his playoff career, and even if he gets bonus points for doing that before being old enough to rent a car, he was still unable to carry the Nationals past the Division Series (though he almost singlehandedly kept Washington alive in 2014 with three homers in four games).

Things didn’t look particularly promising this time around. Harper came into this postseason hampered by a knee injury he suffered in August that cost him most of the second half. Through Game 1 and the first half of Game 2, his timing and rhythm looked off, and his legs didn’t seem fully under him. “Taking six, seven weeks off and not seeing live pitching is tough,” he said before Game 2. “But I think it can definitely get better the farther we go. The more at-bats I get, the more comfortable I get.”

He looked plenty comfortable against Edwards. With one on and one out, he connected on a hanging curveball and walloped a titanic home run—421 feet and 109 mph, according to Statcast, both of which feel off by a factor of 10—that practically left vapor trails as it vanished deep into the rightfield stands. “I tried to hit it as hard as I could,” he said afterward, in the epitome of understatement. The two-run blast tied the game, and as the fans were jolted awake from the stupor of the previous seven innings into frenzied screams, Harper flipped his bat, then flipped his hair—the poster boy for the postseason moment that Nationals fans thought would never come.

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But Harper wasn’t alone. Two batters later, after a single and a walk, Zimmerman stepped to the plate against lefty Mike Montgomery with the chance to add to the new narrative Harper had started. Like Harper and the rest of Washington’s best hitters, he was ice-cold in the early going, with only a single in seven total trips to the plate. Against this Cubs team, meanwhile, he’d produced little either last year (.125/.125/.156 with zero homers in 32 plate appearances) or this season (.167/.259/.250, again with no home runs, in 27 PA). “I haven’t really done much ever against them,” he said.

It took Zimmerman only two pitches to erase all that past frustration, as his high fly ball to left carried through the warm October air and into a flowerbed between the wall and the seats, just above the outstretched reach of Ben Zobrist, for a three-run home run to put the Nationals ahead. Hesitating out of the box, Zimmerman wasn’t sure that he’d gotten enough of the ball—“He hit the ball about as high as you could, got a great launch angle,” said Harper, drawing laughs—but once it plopped into the soil amid the flowers, he circled the bases, arms outstretched, disbelief on his face, the crowd so loud you could probably hear them from as far away as Alexandria. “I couldn’t tell you anything about that run around the bases,” he said afterward, and that’s easy to understand: How can the brain comprehend something so unexpected as something finally going right for the Nationals in the playoffs?

No player has been a bigger part of the Nationals franchise than Zimmerman. The team’s first ever draft pick, he made his debut in Washington’s inaugural season and then quietly produced star numbers amid total dreck. In 2009, he was the only good thing about a clumsy, awful squad that lost 103 games—a genuine All-Star in the middle of a lineup that would have struggled in Triple A, stuck in the division basement with no real path out. Then the draft blessed the Nationals with Stephen Strasburg and Harper, and the farm system flourished, and the free agents began to come. Now Zimmerman plays for the cream of the NL East crop; the world he knows now is so different from where he began as to be part of another universe entirely.

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The question surrounding the Nationals in Zimmerman’s early days used to be “Will they ever be good?” Now, as he plays in his fourth postseason after his 13th year in the majors, the people ask, “Will they ever be good enough?” No matter how far Washington has come, the failures of postseasons past will stick to this team until it can give the fans a taste of October success, and that’s okay with Zimmerman. “I think we all enjoy that pressure,” he said. “We want it. It’s just fun to be around and be a part of it.” But to him, what happened in 2012 and ’14 and ’16 is as relevant to this year’s playoffs as those days long ago when he and his teammates had nothing left to play for by mid-June.

“Every year is a new year,” he said. “Different teams, different players, different people having different years. You can learn a lot from your past, but for me, the past is the past.”

Madson wasn’t part of that past; he’s only been with the Nationals since the end of July, when they acquired him from the Athletics. He’s never been exposed to what Zimmerman and Harper and the rest had to suffer through. All he knows is that he expected this team to avoid the crushing loss and actually win—and on Saturday night, for the first time in a long time, that wasn’t a crazy thought. 

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