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Nats manager Baker ‘knows there’s a championship coming’

WASHINGTON — Manager Dusty Baker is bathing in positive energy going into his Nationals’ playoff opener against the Cubs.

More than ready to rinse what grime remains from his own and the Nats’ past postseason failures, Baker, 68, was feeling it before his team worked out Thursday at Nationals Park.

“I know there’s a championship coming,’’ Baker said. “I know it’s already written. All you’ve got to do is believe it, and then act it.’’

He has believed it before, but championships have eluded Baker, who presided over the Cubs’ epic 2003 National League Championship Series meltdown and the Nats’ loss in a riveting 2016 NL Division Series to the Dodgers in five games.

Dusty Baker smiles during a baseball press conference at Nationals Park, Thursday, Oct. 5, 2017, in Washington. The Nationals host the Cubs in Game 1 of the National League Division Series on Friday. (AP)

Despite the heartbreaks, positive energy never seems to escape him. In his 50th season in the game, Baker, always revered as a true player’s manager, is again oozing optimism even though he always has come up short — sometimes in excruciating fashion — trying to hunt down a World Series ring as a skipper.

His Giants lost to the Angels in Game 7 of the 2002 World Series after being eight outs away in Game 6 and leading by five runs in the seventh inning of Game 7. His Cubs lost in 2003 after being five outs away in Game 6 of the NLCS. And three of his Reds teams said “see you in the spring” from gloomy postseason clubhouses.

Perhaps this is his year. Baker, who’s 21-29 in postseason games as a manager, knows his playoff roster with Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Bryce Harper, Daniel Murphy and a shaped-up bullpen is equipped to give him that title. He likes what he sees of it makeup-wise, too.

“This is a different team,’’ he said. “I mean, these guys, they know what’s at stake.’’

Baker calls them “a pretty cool bunch of hard-nosed dudes.’’

Seeing Cubbie blue across the field might touch a nerve or two — he managed the Cubs from 2003 to ’06 and took a beating from fans after ’03 — but if you’ve been in baseball as long as Baker has, there are sentimental encounters everywhere.

“There’s always extra emotion [facing the Cubs],’’ he said. “I’ve got a couple of former teams in the way, and you get to the World Series, and I got some extra motivation against the Yanks, too. They beat my team, the Dodgers, when I was a kid. And they beat me when I played on the Dodgers [in 1977 and ’78]. Oh, yeah, I’ve got motivation with a few teams.’’

Baker, who had hoped to have a contract extension from the Nats by now but was told to wait till after the season to discuss one, said he finds himself soaking in these moments more deeply than before.

“Because now I really have an appreciation of how hard it is to get there,’’ he said. “In the beginning, it’s, ‘I’ll be here every year.’ That’s what I thought. That’s what it felt like.

“But then after you miss it a few times, and you’re like, hey, man, that was really special.’’

What would be special for Baker would be running the table on the Cubs, Dodgers and Yankees. If only he could bury the Angels in a side pocket somehow. But first, the Cubs, managed by Joe Maddon, who has a fresh World Series title on his résumé. The same Maddon who was Angels manager Mike Scioscia’s bench coach in 2002.

“I didn’t know Dusty,’’ Maddon said. “Worked against him in the Series. There were always platitudes regarding his ability to connect with the group in the clubhouse, and if I get compared in that way in any way, shape or form, I’ll take it.’’

Baker would take Maddon’s title. If his own instincts are to be trusted, he’s close to getting one.

And maybe more.

“The way I look at it, if I win one, I’ll win two,’’ he said.

Follow me on Twitter @CST_soxvan.

Email: dvanschouwen@suntimes.com

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