Baseball: Ready, Teddy, go! Nationals aim to follow the mascot into history

Washington DC has long been a backwater for baseball, but finally has a team to be proud of

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The Independent Online

For baseball this was a regular season of firsts. Detroit Tigers' slugger Miguel Cabrera became the first winner of the batting triple crown – for home runs, batting average, and runs produced – since 1967, and only the 15th player in history to achieve the feat.

Less consequentially, on the last day of the season on Wednesday, Teddy Roosevelt, or more exactly his foam mascot, for the first time in 525 attempts won the knockabout presidential race, featuring the four faces on Mount Rushmore, that takes place in the middle of each Washington Nationals home game. And why not? As the play-offs open this weekend, the biggest story in baseball is the Nationals.

The history of the national pastime in the US capital has not been happy. Only once has the World Series been won, in 1924. Twice a Washington-based team has decamped for more welcoming pastures elsewhere. Not since 1933, when Teddy's distant cousin Franklin was in the White House, has Washington even reached the post-season.

But all that changed in 2012. The Nationals wound up with a 98-64 record, the best in baseball – and that with their superstar pitcher Stephen Strasburg shut down for the last month of the season to protect his elbow after reconstruction surgery. But it didn't matter, with the likes of 21-game winner Gio Gonzalez, sluggers Michael Morse and Adam LaRoche around, not to mention the 19-year-old prodigy Bryce Harper, whose 22-homer debut season has elicited comparisons with Mickey Mantle.

Set aside football's Redskins (and even they haven't won a Super Bowl in two decades) the capital has mostly been a backwater of US sport. In a nomadic city ("everyone who lives here was born somewhere else" is the eternal complaint) lacklustre Washington teams struggled to build a loyal fan base. So it was with the "Nats" in the first years after baseball most recently returned to the capital in 2005.

But all that's changing. Total attendance in 2012 jumped by a third, while Teddy's travails generated a minor cottage industry on the internet. The team is even bridging Washington's infamous partisan political divide. The Senate majority leader, Democrat Harry Reid, and his Republican opposite number Mitch McConnell, are usually at each other's throats. Only on one thing are they united: their support for the Nationals.

And with a core group of terrific young players signed up on long-term contracts, guided by Davey Johnson, one of the canniest managers in the game, Washington should be a contender for many years. "This has been a great season, a great team," says one of those young players, third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, "but we have a lot more to accomplish." If the fans have their way, those accomplishments will start this month.

The play-offs feature most of the usual suspects – the New York Yankees of course, the San Francisco Giants and the St Louis Cardinals, World Series winners in 2010 and 2011 respectively, Miguel Cabrera's Tigers and the Cincinnati Reds (but not the Red Sox, after Boston's most miserable season in decades).

There are some unexpected franchises too, the Baltimore Orioles who hadn't had a winning season since 1997 until they kept the American League East race with the Yankees alive until the last day of the season, and the low-budget Oakland Athletics – they of the movie Moneyball – who made up a record six games in the last nine days to pip the Texas Rangers, AL pennant winners in both 2010 and 2011.

Making predictions for baseball's play-offs is a fool's game. The marathon 162-game regular season sorts out the good teams from the bad ones. The 10 who make it to the post-season are by definition all good ones. But best-of-five and best-of-seven game series are a toss-up. Regular-season records are no pointer, as 2011 showed. The Cardinals captured the National League wildcard on the season's very last day and kept the momentum going to win the division series, the NL pennant and finally the World Series itself.

That alone argues against the Nationals going all the way. But the team has already exceeded every expectation. They are in uncharted territory now, but on their side is the fearlessness of youth. And if mascot Teddy finally won, why can't they?