WASHINGTON — Few sports figures as universally likable as Dusty Baker manage to stir up as much opprobrium about their skill for their job. And while Baker’s early-career sins of young pitcher overuse are still wrongly held against him in spite his evolution, there is still perhaps an informed reason why he is doubted.
Baker has been, by most accounts, a successful and well-liked regular season manager. His .533 winning percentage — even better with the Nats, at .601 — speaks volumes. But so does his .420 (42-58) postseason mark. He’s won one pennant, but no titles, in eight postseason appearances. And one stat in particular is perhaps the most telling in why he has garnered his particular reputation as a manager whose teams can’t get over the hump.
Below are the last nine games in which a Baker-managed team has had a chance to advance to the next round of the playoffs:
2016 NLDS Game 5 (Nats led 1-0 in 7th, lost 4-3)
2016 NLDS Game 4 (Game tied 5-5 in 8th, Nats lost 6-5)
2013 Wild Card Game (Reds lost 6-2)
2012 NLDS Game 5 (Reds lost 6-4)
2012 NLDS Game 4 (Reds lost 8-3)
2012 NLDS Game 3 (Reds led 1-0 in 3rd, lost 2-1 in 10)
2003 NLCS Game 7 (Cubs led 5-3 in 5th, lost 9-6)
2003 NLCS Game 6 (Cubs led 3-0 in 8th, lost 8-3)
2003 NLCS Game 5 (Cubs lost 4-0)
That’s nine consecutive opportunities to advance and nine losses, the longest such streak in Major League history. Baker’s 2003 Cubs beat the Atlanta Braves in Game 5 of the NLDS to advance to the Championship Series. But travel back before that and the trend continues:
2003 NLDS Game 4 (Cubs led 1-0 in 4th, lost 6-4)
2002 World Series Game 7 (Giants led 1-0 in 2nd, lost 4-1)
2002 World Series Game 6 (Giants led 5-0 in 7th, lost 6-5)
Dating back to the 2002 World Series, that makes 12 losses in the last 13 such opportunities. Baker’s teams led at one point in eight of those 12 games. They were tied or led in the seventh inning or later four times, including both Games 4 and 5 last year.
Obviously, Baker and the Nationals share that history from last season. But the Nats also had the chance to advance in Game 5 of the 2012 NLDS. That makes the club 0-for-3 in potential series-winning games. Toss in Games 4 and 5 of the five-game 1981 NLCS — the Montreal Expos’ lone playoff appearance, which they led 2-games-to-1 before losing — and the franchise is a combined 0-for-5.
None of this has to mean anything for this year’s team. But to move on to the National League Championship Series (much less the World Series), the Nationals and Baker will both have to break streaks that reach back through their respective and shared histories. They have the chance to give themselves that opportunity to do so together against the Chicago Cubs, a team that knows a little something about bucking labels and history themselves.