The Nationals and what could have been

September 24, 2013

(Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)
brushback_harper

The Nationals could still win 89 games, and they will probably finish with 87 or 88. A lot of seasons – most seasons, actually – that would be good enough to make the wild-card playoff. It’s not good enough this year, and so their season feels, right now, like a failure. That may be harsh, but it’s true. Those are the stakes when a team wins 98 games, makes winter upgrades and the manager says in December, “World Series or Bust.”

The reasons why the Nationals were eliminated from the playoffs last night, even after a commendable late-season push, are varied and many. They lacked left-handed relief. They ranked among the worst offenses in the leagues under Rick Eckstein. They were too patient with Danny Espinosa, Zach Duke, Henry Rodriguez, Roger Bernadina and others. Their bench, aside from Steve Lombardozzi’s second half, gave them almost nothing. Dan Haren pulled it together, but his first two months were a mess. Jayson Werth, Wilson Ramos and Bryce Harper all missed at least a month’s worth of games. The effects of Ryan Zimmerman’s shoulder surgery made him, at points, a husk of himself. Ross Detwiler missed the final three months. They went 14-29 against the five National League playoff teams. Add your own reason.

“We didn’t do the things we were capable of doing early, and we came back strong,” Manager Davey Johnson said. “But that’s baseball. I love those guys. Great talent, great makeup. We just didn’t get it done.”

The biggest reason the Nationals missed the playoffs this season may be the biggest reason any team misses the playoffs: It is really damn hard to make the playoffs. That got lost amidst the starry-eyed spring predictions and forecasts. The Nationals were great in 2012, they had a lot of talent coming back and they seemed not to have a weakness. But there were 29 teams with incredible players and brilliant front offices and hungry, motivated, well-compensated competitors. “It’s inconvenient when you have to play the schedule,” a Nationals official said at one point this summer. It was both tongue-in-cheek and profound. If they end up with 87 wins, while that’s not good enough this year, it’s still an accomplishment.

“We played so bad early, and were waiting for this thing to come around,” Adam LaRoche said. “It was good to see that we did have it in us to play good baseball. We went three months without it. I don’t think anybody could pinpoint the problem. To come out and finally put it all together, it was late and not enough. It was still good to see it.”

As far as reasons go, the Nationals could also carry granular regrets. How many games did they let slip away after they put themselves in position to win?

Here are nine games – one for each position in the field – the Nationals wish they had back.

Date: April 12

Place: Nationals Park

Opponent: Atlanta Braves

Highest Win Expectancy: 95 percent

Synopsis: The Nationals’ first meeting with the Braves set the tone for their season series. The Nationals scored four runs off Julio Teheran in the first two innings, then managed two hits the rest of the night. The Nationals took a 4-2 lead into the ninth, when Drew Storen received his first save chance since Game 5. Ryan Zimmerman fielded what could have been the final out and committed his first throwing error of the season, firing a force at second into center field and allowing two runs to score. Ramiro Pena would hit a two-run homer off Craig Stammen in the 10th, and the Nationals lost, 6-4.

Date: May 12

Place: Nationals Park

Opponent: Chicago Cubs

Highest Win Expectancy: 80 percent

Synopsis: There were more improbable collapses, but perhaps none so odd. The Nationals scored a run in the first inning, but could add no more despite runners on second and third with one out. Gio Gonzalez tossed seven scoreless innings and left with a 1-0 lead. Drew Storen allowed a run in the eighth. The Cubs scored the go-ahead run in the ninth when Kurt Suzuki tried to throw out a base stealer at third and his throw deflected off Wellington Castillo’s bat. The rally could have been avoided had Rafael Soriano not started the inning with two singles.

Date: May 21

Place: AT&T Park

Opponent: San Francisco Giants

Highest Win Expectancy: 92 percent

Synopsis: The Giants were down to their last out with Buster Posey on first base and closer Rafael Soriano on the mound. Gregor Blanco smoked a line drive to right field. Five days earlier, Bryce Harper had crashed into the wall at Dodger Stadium. Chasing Blanco’s liner, Harper flinched even before he reached the warning and missed a possible catch. Posey scored the tying run, and afterward Soriano would question Harper’s positioning. In the 10th, Yunesky Maya made his only appearance of the season and gave up a monstrous homer to Pablo Sandoval, sealing a 4-2 loss.

Date: May 29

Place: Camden Yards

Opponent: Baltimore Orioles

Highest Win Expectancy: 92 percent

Synopsis: After five innings, Ryan Zimmerman had hit three home runs and Jordan Zimmermann, who had been perhaps the NL’s best pitcher, protected a 6-2 lead. Zimmermann faced four batters in the sixth, and they all scored. Chris Davis drilled a decisive homer off Tyler Clippard, and the Orioles ended up winning, 9-6.

Date: June 1

Place: Turner Field

Opponent: Atlanta Braves

Highest Win Expectancy: 88 percent

Synopsis: With the score tied at 1 in the ninth, Ryan Zimmerman singled and Adam LaRoche doubled to put runners at second and third with no outs against closer Craig Kimbrel. Ian Desmond struck out looking, Roger Bernadina hit a grounder that got Zimmerman thrown out at home and Danny Espinosa popped to left. In the 10th, Henry Rodriguez walked two batters and gave up a walk-off single to B.J. Upton, who at the time was hitting .153.

Date: June 27

Place: Nationals Park

Opponent: Arizona Diamondbacks

Highest Win Expectancy: 85 percent

Synopsis: The Nationals’ offensive futility cost them more than any late-game breakdown. Adam LaRoche gave the Nationals a 2-0 lead in the fifth with a homer. Stephen Strasburg gave back the lead when Aaron Hill hit a two-run run homer in the sixth, which followed a single from opposing starter Patrick Corbin. As the Nationals went 0 for 6 with runners in scoring position and stranded eight, the game lurched into extra innings. Arizona won in the 11th with Didi Gregorious’s RBI single off Craig Stammen.

Date: July 12

Place: Marlins Park

Opponent: Miami Marlins

Highest Win Expectancy: 75 percent

Synopsis: The Nationals led, 3-0, after the first inning. They handed the ball to their best pitcher facing the worst lineup in the majors. And Stephen Strasburg imploded. The Marlins scored five runs in the first inning and knocked Strasburg out after the second. The Nationals trailed, 7-3, and never made it a game. A sure win turned into a blowout loss – and set the stage for an even more maddening loss.

Date: July 13

Place: Marlins Park

Opponent: Miami Marlins

Highest Win Expectancy: 82 percent

Synopsis: Debilitating error from Ryan Zimmerman? Check. Punchless offense? Check. Rafael Soriano leaving a pitch up in the zone to the wrong hitter? Check. This had all the markings of a brutal 2013 Nationals loss. Dan Haren fired six scoreless innings and the Nationals managed one run off Jose Fernandez. Giancarlo Stanton tied it in the ninth with a homer off Soriano. The Nationals put runners on second and third with two outs in the 10th, but Scott Hairston and Zimmerman both struck out. The Marlins starter the game-winning rally when Zimmerman’s throw sailed wide of Adam LaRoche at first, and they won, 2-1, when Ed Lucas beat out a double play ball.

Date: Aug. 15

Place: Nationals Park

Opponent: San Francisco Giants

Highest Win Expectancy: 97 percent

Synopsis: Out of all of Rafael Soriano’s shaky moments, this was the worst. The Nationals handed him a 3-1 lead and the chance to extend a four-game winning streak. Buster Posey led off with a single, and with two outs Soriano walked the tying run. Hector Sanchez followed with a home run to the upper deck in right field. The Nationals couldn’t come back, and they fell, 4-3.

FROM THE POST

The Nationals’ 4-3 loss to the Cardinals mathematically eliminated them from the playoffs.

Randy Knorr has the support of the Nationals’ clubhouse in his bid to replace Davey Johnson.

FROM YESTERDAY’S JOURNAL

Haren’s take on the future

Desmond goes 20-20

Nats set rotation

Clippard’s new splitter

Adam Kilgore covers national sports for the Washington Post. Previously he served as the Post's Washington Nationals beat writer from 2010 to 2014.
Comments
Show Comments
Most Read Sports
Stats, scores and schedules
Next Story
Adam Kilgore · September 23, 2013

Every story. Every feature. Every insight.

Yours for as low as JUST 99¢!

Not Now