Washington Nationals: Wait Till Next Year

by Richard M. Langworth on 28 October 2014

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Our Hero: Denard Span (CF) bat­ted .302, stole 31 bases, had a fran­chise record 184 hits, made impos­si­ble catches all year.

Long-suffering Nats fans hoped 2014 would be The Year.

After play­ing door­mat to the National League East for ages; after blow­ing a sure Divi­sion Series in 2012, we all expected our Wash­ing­ton Nation­als to put a stamp on the 90th anniver­sary of 1924—the last year Wash­ing­ton won the World Series.

Instead we lost the NL Divi­sion Series to a wild card team that had won only 88 games in the sea­son. We lost three games out of four, all by one run—games that could have gone either way. But the San Fran­cisco Giants are pros, vet­er­ans of the play­off sea­son. We’re not. We’re young. We choke.

To explain what went wrong, let’s start with what went right. In the reg­u­lar sea­son, the Wash­ing­ton Nation­als were the…

  • win­ningest team in the National League (98-66), tied for the second-winningest in baseball.
  • best by far in the NL East, fin­ish­ing 17 games ahead of our near­est rivals.
  • win­ningest team in the last three years (280-206)—better than the Giants, Car­di­nals, Angels, Roy­als, Pirates, Braves, Tigers, Ath­let­ics and Dodgers.
  • best in finales: a spec­tac­u­lar no-hitter the last day of the season.
  • best in rota­tion: the top ERA and WHIP in the majors.
  • stingi­est in allow­ing earned runs, home runs, stolen bases and walks.
  • arguably the best bal­anced: our start­ing pitch­ers won 69 games, an aver­age of nearly 14 each; four of our start­ing eight posi­tion play­ers had over 80 rbis.

“Dlock­fan,” a con­trib­u­tor to the Nation­als mes­sage board, explains what went wrong:

  • When Zim­mer­man was side­lined and Anthony Ren­don had to play third, we got lit­tle offense from our sec­ond basemen.
  • The bench gave us nothing.
  • We had no Cy Young or MVP candidates.
  • Our closer imploded—couldn’t get any­body out.
  • Our short­stop struck out 183 times, bat­ted .255 and had 24 errors.
  • Our catcher dropped crit­i­cal throws and pitches, and is so slow he can be, and was, thrown out from the shal­low outfield.

The Nation­als’ Matt Williams was declared “Man­ager of the Year” by the Sport­ing News. Given what he was work­ing with, some peo­ple think he earned it. Me, I dunno.

In 2012, our pre­vi­ous let-down year, Davey John­son was voted MoY too. We seem really good at devel­op­ing “the best X [fill in the blank] in base­ball” while fiz­zling when the chips are down.

It was dis­cour­ag­ing to hear con­stantly from our man­ager: “That’s baseball…I’m proud of the guys…I wouldn’t do a thing dif­fer­ently.” But I won­der if they don’t all mouth such pab­u­lum in a kind of PC, Participation-Award kind of approach, rather than telling it like it is. Most man­agers speak in plat­i­tudes in public.

The dif­fer­ence is how they run the team off-camera, and how they strate­gize. Most stick with rote-think strate­gies. Inno­v­a­tive man­agers will­ing to take a chance or try a sur­prise are rare. Guys who will try a squeeze play once in a blue moon; who demand a left-handed vet­eran hit to a vacant left side now and then, against ridicu­lous infield shifts to the right; who will talk to a cruis­ing ace start­ing pitcher before yank­ing him with two outs in the 9th, and set up a blown game;  who’ll pinch run when his slow­est run­ner gets on late in a tight game; who’ll bring in his most reli­able relief pitcher with a game in the bal­ance, instead of an incon­sis­tent rookie, to save his “setup man” for a setup that never comes—such man­agers are rare. Most of them play it safe nowadays.

Old time fans dat­ing back to the Wash­ing­ton Sen­a­tors days are used to this. We’re long suf­fer­ing. We come back for more. Heck, Washington’s had bet­ter reg­u­lar sea­sons the last three years than any three Nats teams dat­ing back to the 1920s.

As for our fiz­zle in the play­offs, I offer the post­war Brook­lyn Dodgers. In 1951-55 they played in the post-season four out of five years—and were denied a World Series ring the first four times. “Wait till next year” was the mantra. Brook­lyn fans never gave up. They were rewarded on their fifth try.

2015 marks the 90th anniver­sary of another Wash­ing­ton pen­nant. (Never mind that we blew the World Series that year after win­ning three of the first four games.)

Today’s Nats have had only two tries at the ulti­mate prize. We have a sharp gen­eral man­ager in Mike Rizzo, a good farm sys­tem, and withal, a pretty good team. Just keep improv­ing and win­ning the divi­sion. The rest will hap­pen. Or so we keep telling ourselves.

 

 

 

 

 

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