Thursday and Friday bring a tale of two seasons to the DMV, one getting underway and one possibly ending next week.
The Washington Capitals, coming off back-to-back division titles, open the regular season 900 miles away in Ottawa. In Southeast DC, the Washington Nationals begin the postseason after winning their second consecutive division crown.
The two franchises share more than a city and jittery fan base. Each has a recent history of being uncommonly good … except when it matters the most.
For the Nats, winning the NL East four times in six years is overshadowed by the Division Series-eliminations in each instance. Their failure to advance hangs over Nationals Park and will fly with them to Wrigley Field, where the 2016 World Series banner waves.
Considering how the Cubs’ went 108 years between championships, Chicago knows a little about quests for postseason success.
“I definitely think there’s probably a little bit more pressure on them,” Chicago utilityman Ben Zobrist told reporters Tuesday. “They haven’t been out of this first series yet. Obviously, they’re very motivated to try to do that. But they know it’s a very, very big moment for them and their organization.”
For the Caps, beginning their fourth season under coach Barry Trotz, Thursday feels like the exact opposite.
Their anxiety and tension is six months away, when the Stanley Cup playoffs begin. Washington’s performance between now and then is figuratively meaningless, just like the seven first-place finishes in the last 10 years. None of those seasons reached even the conference finals.
Trotz tried to dismiss the team’s history when he arrived in Washington – similar to Cubs manager Joe Maddon’s rejection of curses. The Caps responded last season with their second-consecutive league-best record … followed by their second-consecutive second-round loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins.
A hangover or ghosts lingered throughout the preseason.
“If you talk to players, it’s been a little bit harder to get the energy this year based on how it ended and the summer,” Trotz told reporters Saturday. “So in some ways, another way to say it, we got stuck in last year’s energy or lack of at the end.
“It took a piece of us and now we’ve got to dust ourselves off here and go, ‘Hey you know what? It’s for real. Let’s get going. We’re professional. Let’s quit with the self-pity and all that. Whatever’s holding us back, let’s go play because we can play.’”
Both squads have proven the question isn’t whether you can play, it’s when you do so. Those who have been around and experienced the depressing pattern of premature postseason departures can’t openly question what will happen next. Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg must simply believe that these Nats are good enough to win it all, capable of prevailing with pitching or hitting as the leading factor.
Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom must lace up with total disregard for the Caps’ well-chronicled shortcomings, confident in Trotz (who has never survived the second round in 19 seasons as a head coach) and their increasingly younger teammates.
But outside their locker room, former Caps like Karl Azner wonder about the institutional toll of constant flameouts. “You can only get to the second round so many times before you have to think that something needs to be changed,” Azner told the RMNB blog.
Other observers have been conditioned to pay no mind until spring.
“To be honest, I personally couldn’t care less about the Washington Capitals and the regular season,” former NHL goalie and current TV analyst Jamie McLennan told ESPN. “What are they going to follow it up with? Another Presidents’ Trophy? Great. Show me what you can do in the playoffs.”
The Caps have reached the postseason nine times in the last 10 seasons and figure to qualify again. They have a half-year to contemplate what will unfold.
The Nats have a couple of days. God forbid they lose Game 1 behind Strasburg and face a “must-win” situation in Game 2 with possibly gimpy Max Scherzer or possibly shaky Gio Gonzalez on the mound.
“Suffice it to say (Scherzer) is going to pitch in the playoffs here against the Cubs,” General manager Mike Rizzo told reporters Wednesday. Rizzo has never lacked self-assuredness, but Scherzer is a hamstring-twinge away from being relegated to Game 3 or leaving Game 2 early.
Neither outcome would boost team morale. And based on their resumes, the Nats need all the mental fortitude they can muster.
The same will be true down the road for the Caps, but the baseball squad needs it much sooner.
— Brooklyn-born and Howard-educated, Deron Snyder writes his award-winning column for The Washington Times on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Follow him on Twitter @DeronSnyder.