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D.C. sports fans basking in unprecedented success

D.C. sports fans basking in unprecedented success

Joy is not a word D.C. sports fans understand.

Pain. Misery. Sadness. Defeat. Those were terms locals earned a Ph.D. in during the lost years since the Redskins last won a Super Bowl on Jan. 26, 1992. But in 17 months that has all changed. Maybe forever. 

The Capitals broke whatever demonic hex was upon them in 2018 with a Stanley Cup run for the ages. In doing so they unleashed a torrent of joy that’s almost confusing to a city not used to it. 

The Mystics won a WNBA title last week behind a two-time MVP in Elena Delle Donne and a fun, talented group of easy-to-root-for characters who played for a rumpled basketball lifer in Mike Thibault, the best coach in league history. 

Then came the Nationals. No one was prepared for that. A team that was actively trying to match the Capitals’ notorious history of playoff failures in just half the time suddenly took out the fearsome Dodgers in the National League Division Series. 

Months after Bryce Harper rolled up I-95 to Philadelphia, when it looked like this group was playing out the string on a wonderful decade of baseball, it all suddenly changed with that elusive playoff series victory.  

Just like that bitter memories of the Cardinals and Dodgers and Cubs all celebrating NLDS wins at Nationals Park were banished to the dustbin of history. And after a frantic, can-you-believe-this five days worth of N.L. Championship Series baseball, the champagne finally was uncorked in the home clubhouse. 

Now, Washington’s baseball team is playing in the World Series for the first time since the Great Depression (1933). The hockey team has a reasonably fresh championship banner and remains a relevant contender. The WNBA team has its first title ever. “Everything is happening!” as the legendary Canadian hockey broadcaster Bob Cole once said.

This isn’t Boston or New York. They don’t just hand out titles in this city, which didn’t even have a baseball team for 33 years. The old Senators were a horrendous outfit. After that 1933 N.L. pennant – that flag flies high atop the big scoreboard at Nationals Park, you can see it with a telescope - they had 23 losing seasons in the next 27 years. Then, just when a promising young team was showing signs of growth, Major League Baseball let the team move to Minnesota in 1961. 

Those Twins quickly became a force. From 1962 to 1970 they won 90 games or more six times and made it to the World Series in 1965. Think that stretch of winning would have played well in D.C.? 

Instead, MLB gave Washington a dumpy expansion team to replace the original Senators as a “sorry”. It had one winning season in 10 years and never finished higher than fourth in the American League. Then the league had the gall to use poor attendance as a reason to let the Senators 2.0 move to Texas after the 1971 season and the sport gave up on Washington as a baseball town for a generation. “Get your fix in Baltimore,” the league said. 

And throughout the late 1970s, 80s, and 90s many did just that, especially if you lived in the Maryland suburbs. But let’s be real: The Orioles might have been popular, but the parade was still happening in Baltimore, where there remained resentment that the team catered to Washingtonians at all. Getting “Baltimore” back on the road jersey became a cause, the blame for a more sedate crowd at Camden Yards always pinned on the “K Street” lobbyists and lawyers from Washington who bought up the high-priced seats. It wasn’t exactly welcoming. 

So excuse Washingtonians if “joy” isn’t something they know how to handle. The Redskins had their glory days, no question. Going to four Super Bowls in 10 years and winning three of them is something almost any city would envy. But if you remember the 1991 Skins and their incredible 14-2 season, I hate to tell you this: You’re approaching 40. No one under 30 has any memory of that special season. No one under 45 remembers the Wizards/Bullets winning the NBA title in 1978. 

And all respect to D.C. United for being the original dynasty in Major League Soccer. It won championships in 1996, 1997, 1999 and 2004. But soccer in the United States now, with English Premier League games broadcast on NBC every Saturday morning and the success of the United States’ women’s national team and nice World Cup runs by the men in 2002 and 2010, is not what it was then. 

United had a devoted fanbase. It sold out RFK Stadium for the 1997 MLS Cup. It was also a brand-new club that had no tradition. How could it? MLS formed in 1996. It couldn’t possibly unite the entire community the way the Capitals did in 2018 when entire blocks of downtown were choked with fans who just wanted to be near Capital One Arena during the Stanley Cup Final. That moment was 44 years in the making, not two.  

With a gleaming new downtown stadium, United is poised to join the D.C. sports party if it makes a playoff run starting Saturday with its first-round game at Toronto FC. We already saw two huge crowds fill Audi Field for a pair of late-season Washington Spirit NWSL games. It’s a far different sports landscape than when the Redskins were the dominant force in the 70s, 80s, and 90s. 

And that might be the most remarkable part of all this recent sports success for the District. It came in the exact week the Redskins fired their head coach and barely beat a team openly tanking its season. It came the same month that thousands of Patriots fans took over FedEx Field while their team drubbed the hapless Redskins, who seem as far from true contention as ever. 

And yet instead of falling into a morose stupor, D.C. sports fans were thrilled by the wild ride the Nationals gave them this October, which continues next week on baseball’s biggest stage. They don’t have to rely on one team to provide joy anymore. There are so many other options now. 

 

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Jacob deGrom wins second-straight Cy Young, Scherzer, Strasburg and Corbin receive votes

Jacob deGrom wins second-straight Cy Young, Scherzer, Strasburg and Corbin receive votes

It’s Jacob deGrom again.

The New York Mets ace won the National League Cy Young Award on Wednesday night for the second-consecutive season. Los Angeles left-hander Hyun-Jin Ryu finished second and the Nationals’ Max Scherzer placed third. Washington starter Stephen Strasburg also finished tied for fifth behind the St. Louis Cardinals' Jack Flaherty while fellow Nats starter Patrick Corbin received one fifth-place vote to put him in at 11th.

1. Jacob deGrom: 29 first-place votes, 1 second-place vote (207 points)

2. Hyun-Jin Ryu: 1 first-place vote, 10 second-place votes, 8 third-place votes, 7 fourth-place votes, 3 fifth-place votes  (88 points)

3. Max Scherzer: 8 second-place votes, 8 third-place votes, 6 fourth-place votes, 4 fifth-place votes (72 points)

4. Jack Flaherty: 5 second-place votes, 11 third-place votes, 6 fourth-place votes, 4 fifth-place votes (69 points)

5. Stephen Strasburg: 6 second-place votes, 1 third-place vote, 9 fourth-place votes, 8 fifth-place votes (53 points)

Wednesday marked the fourth consecutive top-three finish for Scherzer. Scherzer has finished in the top five every year since he signed a seven-year, $210 million deal to come to Washington in 2015. He won the award in 2016 and 2017. He finished second last season.

Scherzer’s back injuries in 2019 limited his chances to win. He went on the injured list twice, limiting him to 27 starts, the lowest in a full season during his 12-year career. Otherwise, his numbers provided a strong argument he should be right alongside deGrom when being considered for the award. He led the league in strikeouts per nine with a dominant 12.7. Scherzer also led the league in FIP -- fielding-independent pitching -- as well as strikeout-to-walk ratio.

Ryu’s candidacy hinged on his control. He put together the league’s best walk rate, ERA and ERA-plus. However, he, like Scherzer, was limited in total production. Ryu made 29 starts and threw 182 ⅔ innings. He started the All-Star Game -- selected by Dodgers manager Dave Roberts -- and went through a second-half fade when deGrom surged.

DeGrom checked all the boxes. His workload was high (32 starts, 202 innings pitched). He led the league in strikeouts. He tied for the lead in WHIP, was fourth in batting average against and first in OPS against at a mere .580. His 1.44 ERA in 92 innings after the All-Star break put him in position to claim the award again.

DeGrom joins Scherzer, Clayton Kershaw, Tim Lincecum, Randy Johnson (four in a row), Greg Maddux (four in a row) and Sandy Koufax as back-to-back winners of the award since its inception in 1956.

Strasburg led the National League in innings pitched before become the Most Valuable Player in the Nationals’ World Series win. He is a free agent after opting out of the final four years and $100 million on his contract. He’s never finished higher than third in Cy Young Award voting, though 2019 was his second-best year by bWAR. 

Like deGrom, Flaherty used his work after the All-Star break to push into consideration. His 0.91 ERA in 99 innings and 15 starts made him the best National League pitcher from July on. His 4.64 ERA prior to the schedule break held back his overall numbers. Flaherty is just 24 years old and should be back for consideration in the future.

Corbin joined the Nationals last offseason on a six-year, $140 million deal after seven years with the Arizona Diamondbacks. He went 14-7 with a 3.25 ERA and 238 strikeouts in 202 innings for Washington this season.

The Nationals and Dodgers accounted for six of the 11 pitchers to receive Cy Young votes. Clayton Kershaw and Walker Buehler also garnered ballot selections, finishing eighth and ninth, respectively.

Matt Weyrich contributed to this report.

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Picking Jacob deGrom for NL Cy Young was the only easy decision on my ballot

Picking Jacob deGrom for NL Cy Young was the only easy decision on my ballot

The only easy part is at the top. Jacob deGrom was the clear winner of the 2019 National League Cy Young Award. The rest was a tussle.

Good news about voting for this award: It’s more statistics-oriented than MVP (an individual’s definition of “value” can have a big influence there), and is not a nonsense award based on almost nothing, the way Manager of the Year is. 

However, those circumstances don’t make it easy to vote for -- this year in particular. On my ballot, the gap between second and fifth is minute; to the point I would be comfortable with a shuffle in almost any order. But, you have to pick and slot guys in, so here is the ballot:

  1. Jacob deGrom
  2. Max Scherzer
  3. Hyun-Jin Ryu
  4. Jack Flaherty
  5. Stephen Strasburg

Locally, the first thing that will pop is Strasburg’s position relative to Scherzer. So, to reiterate: The gap between second and fifth on my ballot is very slim. I’d prefer extrapolating this with decimal points for a better illustration than two versus five.

In Strasburg’s favor this year: his workload. He led the league in innings pitched and pitches thrown. He also finished second in Baseball-Reference’s measurement of WAR. Where he falls behind is in peripheral categories. Scherzer was better in FIP, WHIP, OBP-against, strikeouts per nine, strikeout-to-walk ratio, adjusted ERA-plus and fWAR (by a wide margin). When Scherzer pitched, he was the more effective pitcher. His strikeouts per nine (12.69) was the highest rate among qualifiers since Randy Johnson (13.41) in 2001. It’s the gap in innings that brings Strasburg into the conversation.

Overall, Scherzer’s position across multiple categories -- leading a handful when deGrom is extracted -- put him second, narrowly, on my ballot.

Ryu’s command was striking. His league-leading 1.18 walks per nine was the best since Bartolo Colon’s 1.11 in 2015. He, like Scherzer, trailed the others on my ballot in innings pitched (183). And, his ERA argument took a hit when FIP (fielding-independent pitching) is introduced to the conversation. He’s fourth there. Though, Ryu comes back in ERA-plus, where he is first. He’s eighth overall in bWAR and fifth in fWAR, undermining his case to a degree and put him behind Scherzer on my ballot.

Flaherty’s post-All-Star break run launched him onto ballots: 0.91 ERA, 0.71 WHIP, .142 batting average against, 124 strikeouts, 23 walks. Dominant. Beforehand? A 4.64 ERA and 1.23 WHIP. In the end, half his starts were so good, he’s competitive for a top-five spot.

Each time I went through, I found arguments for moving all four players to different positions, which, in the end, is mostly moot. The winner is deGrom. Again.

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