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:
- The only Nat on the All-Start team was a set-up reliever.
- Three of our top guys, Ryan Zimmerman, Bryce Harper and Wilson Ramos, played on average in only half the games, owing to injuries.
- 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.