Washington Nationals: Wait Till Next Year

Washington Nationals: Wait Till Next Year

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

2 thoughts on “Washington Nationals: Wait Till Next Year

  1. I remem­ber that team. Amaz­ing! You think we have a good catch­er? He can get thrown out on balls hit into the shal­low out­field, he’s injury-prone and he drops a lot of pegs. We are hop­ing he meets with God on the road up from Venezuela this spring.

  2. great analy­sis of the base­ball virtues and weak­ness­es of the Wash­ing­ton Nation­als. I would like to say some­thing about the Dodgers. They nev­er won until 1955 when they had a new man­ag­er Walt Alston. It could be argued that the 1953 team was bet­ter. But Alston won by pulling out all the stops such as hav­ing Duke Snider sac­ri­fice in a key play. I remem­ber see­ing Gil Hodges man­age the Mets in 1969. He meant at least 15-20 games for the Mets. He got every pos­si­ble run and every pos­si­ble pitch­ing per­for­mance out of his play­ers. I will nev­er for­get when he took out Gen­try in the 1969 play­offs on a 3-2 count after Rico Car­ty with two men on had hit the ball into the upper deck but foul by a few feet. He then brought in Nolan Ryan who turned on the heat and struck out Car­ty on one pitch. The Brave ral­ly was sti­fled and the Mets swept the series and went on to win the World Series (against the Ori­oles). I have often thought since how rare it is to pull a pitch­er when he has a two strike advan­tage. But that is what I call can­ny man­ag­ing. Hodges just sensed that Gary Gen­try didn’t have enough on the ball to strike out Car­ty, a .342 hit­ter with some pow­er. Some man­agers sit back and do the con­ven­tion things. Oth­ers think and are on the ball. You have to have a good catch­er and short­stop to win and you have to have a good man­ag­er.

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