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Are the Nationals this year's Cubs? 'There is some pressure on us'

Before Game 3 of the 1983 American League Championship Series, a couple of White Sox fans walked around Comiskey Park with a large white bedsheet that read: "Don't (bleep) up."

It didn't work.

Sox shortstop Jerry Dybzinski made a memorable baserunning gaffe during their Game 4 loss to the Orioles, who would go on to win the game, the ALCS and eventually the World Series.

Security was much laxer back then, so don't expect any Nationals fans to express themselves similarly when Game 1 of the National League Division Series begins Friday night in Washington.

But the sentiment is the same. Until the Nationals show they can win the big one, many of their fans will be waiting for them to blow it.

That's why the pressure is squarely on the Nationals to beat the Cubs, no matter what anyone says.

"I can't speak for the Cubs, but I embrace the pressure," Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo said. "We've been a really, really good team for the last six seasons now and won some division titles and stuff, but our expectations always have been to win a World Series, and they continue to be that.

"Until you do it, you haven't done it. There is some pressure on us, and it's a good thing and we have some players embracing it also."

The Nationals are basically the designated Cubs of the 2017 postseason, the team trying to overcome its history of bleeping up.

If they don't win this series, it's going to be a long, cold winter in Washington. But optimism is in the air heading into the series. The Cubs finally did it in 2016, and the Nationals are capable of emulating that championship team.

"I see where there are some similarities, for sure," Nationals closer Sean Doolittle said. "One of the impressive things they had to deal with last year was everybody was talking about them. They kind of had the target on their back, even if they had the drought — the 'curse,' if you will — that they were dealing with.

"People were talking about it. There were these expectations this was going to be the year that they do it. I don't know if we have any of those (expectations)."

A Washington team hasn't won a World Series since the original Senators in 1924 and hasn't played in one since 1933. The original and expansion Senators had two winning seasons from 1946 to '71, and the city went 33 years without a team until the Expos relocated from Montreal in 2005 and changed their name to the Nationals.

How "Cubs-like" is this franchise? The Nationals' version of the "Bartman game" occurred in 2012, when they were within a strike of winning the NLDS against the Cardinals before blowing a 6-0 lead in Game 5 and losing 9-7.

Local baseball historian Frederic Frommer wrote that some fans blamed the 2012 loss on the "Curse of Theodore Roosevelt," meaning the foam-headed mascot of Teddy, not the late president.

The Nationals feature a Racing Presidents routine on the field every game like the Brewers' popular Racing Sausages, and one of the "bits" was that the Roosevelt character never won. But Teddy finally ended his losing streak on Oct. 3, 2012 — shortly before the postseason debacle.

Political adviser James Carville, a Nationals season ticket holder, said 2012 still stings.

"We've had more wins in the last five years than any team in baseball," he said. "But the thing in 2012 was one of the most haunting things in sports, and last year against the Dodgers — another heartbreaker."

Max Scherzer had a 1-0 lead in the seventh inning of Game 5 before serving up a leadoff home run, and the bullpen imploded to allow the Dodgers to advance to the NLCS against the Cubs.

Carville neglected to mention the 2014 NLDS against the Giants, in which Drew Storen blew a save in the ninth in Game 2 and the Nationals wound up losing in 18 innings, eventually falling 3-1 in the series.

The litany of epic collapses in Washington isn't limited to the Nationals. The Capitals have choked in the Stanley Cup playoffs on a nearly annual basis; the Wizards' lone NBA title came 39 years ago (when they were the Bullets); and the Redskins haven't been to a Super Bowl since winning it after the 1991 season, Washington's last title.

If the Nationals are going to end the drought, they'll have to start with a series win over a franchise that practically had a patent on heartbreak.

"They're the world champs until someone takes it away from them," Rizzo said. "We respect that. We respect the team. We don't fear them, but we do respect them. Our goal is to beat them and to go on to win the World Series, to be where they are now."

And if that doesn't work, they can always try blowing up the foam-headed Teddy Roosevelt.

psullivan@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @PWSullivan

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