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The Nationals are the owners of baseball’s most unavoidable and underrated sadness

The Nationals had a great team, again. They failed to win a single postseason series, again.

MLB: NLDS-Chicago Cubs at Washington Nationals Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

The Washington Nationals and Chicago Cubs played a dumb, hilarious, captivating Game 5 that lasted eight hours and 47 minutes, give or take. There was a dropped third strike that led to runs (but maybe shouldn’t have), catcher’s interference, an intentional walk to bad hitters, and an HBP with the bases loaded, and that was just the top of the fifth. It was a delirious, horribly stupid piece of art that we’ll remember until the next time the Nationals are involved in a delirious, horribly stupid piece of art in the NLDS.

Because they’ll be back. We’re counting on it.

Since I’ve been a hardcore baseball fan, one of my greatest pleasure has been watching all of the eternally cursed teams prove that curses are made up and not eternal. First came the Red Sox, who came down from an 0-3 deficit to open the transdimensional portal, which allowed the White Sox to scramble through, and they jammed something in there — was it a human leg? no time, no time — that allowed the Giants to come through, which fractured space and time, and that brought us to the World Champion Chicago Cubs and the end of us all.

We’re left with the Indians and a bunch of teams that weren’t around before the ‘60s. This would seem to set the current postseason drought leaderboard thusly:

  1. Indians
  2. Everybody else, don’t care

That’s fair in some ways. The Indians are one of the original 16 teams, a franchise with a beautiful, poisonous history, and their inability to win it all since color TV was invented is an unforgiving part of their organizational identity. They’re right not to care about the Astros or Mariners, much less the Padres.

And as long as we’re making tiers out of thin air, it would appear that the Nationals would rank pretty low on this particular list. Sure, the Expos existed in 1969, but that just brings us to an existential question. Are the Nationals really the Expos?

Picture a white jersey with the curly, red W on the front...and a big ol’ “DAWSON 10” on the back. Is that cool? Is that ironic? Would I enjoy giving out a high five to this person, saying, “Heck yeah. I respect your baseball knowledge”?

I would not. Because the Nationals aren’t the Expos. It’s why they have a weird-ass statue of Senators-Twins (?) legend Walter Johnson in front of their ballpark and nothing to do with Tim Raines. We’ve all agreed on this. The paperwork is final. The Nationals aren’t the Expos.

If this is canon, that means the Nationals have existed since 2005, which means they’re a newer invention than Chase Utley, Miguel Cabrera, and Curtis Granderson. They’re certainly newer than the Rockies and Rays, the two recent-ish expansion teams without a title, which means they’re definitely newer than the Padres, Rangers, Mariners, or Astros. They rank dead last on this sadness leaderboard. Just look at the teams above them.

Yet I’m here to make an argument that it’s a big, amorphous blob at the bottom of championship-drought gulch. It’s a tie. There are no winners here. There’s just a big pile winners. It seems weird, but I’m serious, and I’m going to explain.

Let’s take a hypothetical Nationals fan and say that he or she wasn’t a fan until 2012, the first year the team finished over .500 since they moved from Canada. This is a classic bandwagon fan, in other words, hooked on a gateway drug. The team was exciting, everything was falling into place, and, screw it, he or she fell in love with the team and the sport. What does that involve?

It involves hours. Hours and hours and hours. So many hours. So many hours in a single night, and then you wake up and there are so many hours in the next day. There are some hours in the wee hours of Sunday if you’re on the West Coast, and there are some hours in the morning hours of Tuesday if you’re on the East Coast. Even for the bandwagon fans, there’s a tax. That tax is hours. And it’s a punitive tax.

But that’s OK because the Nationals had a 19-year-old burgeoning superstar — 19 freaking years old! — and a starting pitcher fresh out of college who was going to be a deity. It was a thrilling collection of talent, and expectations were high, and that’s why he or she put all those hours into it.

Here’s what happened in this bandwagon scenario: This person’s heart was carved out by a Benihana chef and cooked in front of them, knives flying, and they even did that trick where they flipped the heart up and caught it in their shirt pocket. That was 2012, which was the Drew Storen/Cardinals/nopenopenope series that doesn’t get easier to parse when you realize that Pete Kozma is almost 30 and floating around the majors. That series stung.

And then there was 2013.

That year doesn’t mean a lot to you, but it sure does to the hypothetical Nationals fan up there. Because it meant more hours. That was the year that the Nationals were overwhelming favorites. They scuffled in the NLDS, but they had the strongest team, and they were a trendy pick. They flopped. It took about 500 hours to figure that out, spread out over six months.

And then there was 2014.

Look, I’m not going to do this for every year. It builds up. Those hours accumulate over the regular season, and they leave behind a sticky residue of hope. When the end of the season comes, the viscous hope will choke a fan. This applies to the fan who just started watching the team. This most certainly applies to the fan who cared when the Nationals were losing all of the games that helped them get Harper and Strasburg, even if it was impossible to know exactly how tremendous/torturous those picks were going to be. Those Nationals were without redeeming qualities, and there were still some people who invested a whole bunch of hours into those teams.

This would all apply if the Nationals were a normal team, the kind that lost quietly and waited until next spring. But the Nationals lose loudly. They’re the most explosive losers in the sport, year after year, and it’s remarkable. They excelled at not getting that one lousy hit in Game 5, just like they’ve excelled in not getting that one lousy hit in Game 5s in the past. The Padres have had five postseason elimination games since 1969. The Nationals have had four in the last six seasons, all coming in the first round, with three of them offering the promise of advancing to the next round.

The hours, man. They add up. And the Nationals have offered some of the best hours in baseball. Bryce Harper. Stephen Strasburg. Anthony Rendon, Trea Turner, and Max Freaking Scherzer. Yet it doesn’t feel like a gift when Scherzer allows a dribbler and a bloop and a double and a strikeout that, oh my god, becomes something horrible and then there’s a catcher’s interference call and an intentional walk and a hit-by-pitch and an alligator on the field and oh god the alligator is eating people please get this alligator away.

So if your inclination is to pooh-pooh the Nationals because their fans haven’t earned it, reconsider. Baseball seasons are long. So long. And they come with 200 different chapters. Then there are more chapters, more hours, more chapters, more hours. The Nationals have packed more misery into the last six seasons than a lot of teams have packed into the last 20 years.

And next year, around March, everyone will be optimistic. Those hours won’t seem so onerous. They’ll be a feature, not a bug. The Nationals will have a helluva team, most likely. That optimism will be justified.

They could win it all, too. That’s the contract, and the good news is there really aren’t curses. My proof of this is that the Cubs just won the World Series, and they might win another one.

The Nationals could win next year. They have a better chance than most, regardless of what happens at the Winter Meetings.

Until then, they’re just another broken-hearted team wondering what in the hell just happened. And that what-in-the-hell feels just as real as what Indians fans are feeling. Baseball is a horrible, undead demon jerk, after all.