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The good news for the Nationals is four wins in their last five games of June has given them a real chance to hit the All-Star Break on a pace to lose fewer than 100 games.
The bad news, alas, is that’s the good news for the Nationals, who are on the verge of potentially answering a question rarely posed over the last 100-plus years: Which World Series champion declined fastest after its title?
Barring an unlikely turnaround — and they need to go 52-32 the rest of the way to finish .500 — the Nationals will become only the fourth World Series champion to finish with a losing record in each of the three seasons following its title.
The company the Nationals would be joining is certainly an eclectic group. The Red Sox finished with a losing record for a whopping 15 straight seasons — and finished .500 in season no. 16 in 1934 — after winning the 1918 World Series. The second season of that drought, of course, coincided with the trade of Babe Ruth to the Yankees, which may or may not have yielded a curse that lasted 86 years.
The Blue Jays had four consecutive losing seasons following the second of their back-to-back World Series titles in 1993, but that skid comes with a couple asterisks. The Blue Jays finished the strike-shortened 1994 season with a 55-60 mark yet were 23-16 in their final 39 games. Maintaining that pace over the final 47 games would have lifted Toronto over .500.
And even if the Blue Jays finished with a losing record over the hypothetical 162-game 1994 campaign, winning consecutive titles makes the fade less pronounced. Along those lines: The second and most recent NBA champion to have at least three straight losing seasons following its title was the 1997-98 Chicago Bulls, who three-peated for a second time with Michael Jordan before tearing it down and enduring six consecutive sub-.500 finishes. (The first one? The 1948 Baltimore Bullets, who had six straight losing seasons before disbanding during the 1954-55 campaign)
Speaking of teardowns, remember the 1997 Florida Marlins? Put together and dismantled with a speed even Connie Mack would have appreciated (his Philadelphia Athletics won three championships from 1910 through 1913 and fell in the World Series in 1914 before going 43-109 in 1915 to begin a decade-long run of losing seasons), the Marlins went from walk-off champions in 1997 to 108 losses in 1998. The Marlins didn’t have another winning season until their next championship season in 2003.
To some degree, the Nationals’ run deserves a Blue Jays-like asterisk. The Nationals went 26-34 during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, which was just one game worse than their 60-game record in 2019 before mounting one of the great in-season comebacks in history to win the franchise’s first World Series. A full 2020 season might have yielded an entirely different result, or at least not a last-place, sub-.500 finish.
Even going 65-97 last season isn’t as damning as it might appear. The Nationals were 40-38 and just 2 1/2 games out of first place in the NL East on June 30 before an 8-18 July resulted in a fire sale in which impending free agents and championship mainstays Max Scherzer, Yan Gomes and Daniel Hudson were traded along with 20-something superstar Trea Turner, who isn’t eligible for free agency until this winter.
But even if we’re grading on a curve here, the Nationals almost surely won their championship just as the window slammed shut. While Juan Soto remains one of the game’s best players (and, it should be noted, has already turned down a $350 million extension offer with free agency potentially looming following the 2024 season), Patrick Corbin, the winning pitcher in Game 7 of the 2019 World Series, is 15-33 with a 5.64 ERA since the start of 2020.
Stephen Strasburg and Anthony Rendon hit free agency fresh off winning the World Series MVP and leading the Nationals with eight RBIs in the Fall Classic, respectively, but have been since been saddled by injuries. Strasburg re-signed with the Nationals but has made just eight starts in the last two-plus seasons while battling thoracic outlet syndrome. Rendon has been limited to 155 games with the Angels and will be sidelined until next spring following right wrist surgery.
In addition, a whopping nine players who appeared in the World Series—including Howie Kendrick, who hit the go-ahead homer in Game 7 of the World Series, as well as Gerardo “Baby Shark” Parra and Mr. National himself, Ryan Zimmerman—have since retired. The Nationals might not be the World Series winner to author the biggest subsequence collapse, but the last 28 months make a pretty good case they were the timeliest champion.