Can Washington Nationals put an end to 90 years of misery?

The last time a team from Washington DC won the World Series was 1924. Season-ticket holder Rupert Cornwell dares to dream they can repeat it

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Right now, here in this mostly neglected and long derided corner of the baseball universe, only one question matters. The regular season has finally ended and the play-offs start later this week. It’s not who will win the World Series, the sport’s supreme prize, but can we – the Washington Nationals – win it?

Sunday’s game against the Miami Marlins saw our season end in quite magical fashion, as Jordan Zimmermann, an unsung member of the most potent starting rotation in the majors, threw a no-hitter – just one notch below a perfect game and of which there are usually no more than half a dozen across the leagues each year.

Zimmermann’s feat was preserved by a miraculous ninth inning catch by the Nationals’ rookie outfielder Steven Souza, securing the final out. But if it was an ending, it felt more like a prelude: the perfect set-up for an October march to the first championship by a Washington baseball team since 1924.

Since then, the national pastime in the nation’s capital has been an exercise in futility. The last no-hitter by a DC-based team came in 1931. Twice the city has lost a franchise, before the latest re-incarnation in the shape of the Nationals, a replacement for the former Montreal Expos.

The Nats returned in 2005 and I’ve had a share of a season ticket from the start (a full season ticket, for all 81 home games across baseball’s six month regular season, is to forfeit normal life entirely). Well I remember the debut, a glacial end-March exhibition game in Washington’s creaking old RFK football stadium, played in a temperature  of 35°F.

From there, things only went downhill. The nadir came in with 103 losses in 2009, when the Nats were baseball’s doormat and only the most penetrating (or rather hopelessly optimistic) eye could discern the promise of a nucleus of young players being quietly assembled.

Suddenly though, they blossomed. Two years ago, the team stunned all of us – and itself – by compiling the best regular season in baseball. But in the play-offs, the inexperience showed in a traumatic 9-7 loss at home in the deciding first-round game to the St Louis Cardinals, after Washington had built a seemingly impregnable 6-0 lead. Only faint sobs broke the silence of 41,000 devastated, scarcely believing fans.

But now the Nats are in the same spot, older and wiser, and once more with the best record in their league. “First in war, first in peace and last in the American League,” once ran the joke about the seat of a superpower and baseball team. Now the reverse is true: divided and dysfunctional Washington may be a disaster in politics at home and nation-building abroad, but it’s indisputably first in the National League.

There’s no guarantee of course that the catastrophe of 2012 will be expunged. The major league baseball play-offs are a lottery. The margin between a great team and a lousy one is the difference between winning six out of every 10 games during the season and winning four out of 10. On any given day, anyone can beat anyone. The World Series invariably goes not to the best team, but to the one that is hottest.

The Nationals meet that last requirement, having finished the regular season on a 33-13 streak. But if they get past the five game Division Series – the play-offs’ first round – between the winner of tomorrow’s wild-card game between the Pittsburgh Pirates and San Francisco Giants, waiting for them in the NL championship series will be either their old nemesis the Cardinals, who invariably have the Nationals’ number, or the LA Dodgers led by Clayton Kershaw, arguably baseball’s best pitcher in a generation.

But let’s assume they do reach the World Series, to face the American League’s finest. On the AL side of things, 2014 has a strange feel. For the first time in two decades, neither the New York Yankees or the Boston Red Sox, the league’s two traditional powerhouses, have made the play-offs. Instead, the best AL record belongs to the California Angels, featuring Mike Trout, the best young player in the league and Albert Pujols, the greatest hitter of the last 10 years. Next best are the Baltimore Orioles.

Ah yes, the Orioles, just 40 miles up the road from DC. Yes, the same Orioles whose owner Peter Angelos drove us crazy as he fought heaven and earth to prevent a baseball franchise returning to Washington and threatening the Orioles’ lucrative regional market. Almost 10 years on, the two teams are still feuding over the division of TV rights.

There could be no more perfect opponent for the Nationals. The two clinched their runaway victories in their respective divisions on the very same day, 17 September. In baseball terms, they offer a classic match-up. The Orioles are perhaps the best hitting team in the big leagues, while the Nationals have the best pitching: Zimmermann’s no-hitter was only the icing on the cake after a run in which the team’s main starters compiled a record of 13 straight wins, with an other-worldly ERA – runs conceded in a game – of 0.89.

Then there’s the regional rivalry. New York in 2000 had its Subway Series between the home town Yankees and Mets. Before that, there was the 1989 match-up between San Francisco and the Oakland Athletics from across the Bay, memorable for an earthquake just before the start of Game Three. And now – maybe – what is already being dubbed the Battle of the Beltways (a reference to the ringroads around the two cities, each as congested as the M25).

Statisticians claim there’s only a six per cent chance of a Washington-Baltimore meeting. But bring it on. Can our beloved Nationals do it? The head says a fatalistic maybe. The heart however declares a thunderous “Yes”.