The meaning of the Nationals’ strong finish

brushback_harperAt the end of the weekend, following three exhibition games in Arizona, Jayson Werth will face an unfamiliar conclusion. The playoffs will unfold without him. In his eight full seasons before this year, Werth had played into October six times and become one of the sport’s most prolific and productive postseason hitters. In 49 career playoff games, Werth has drilled 14 homers with a .960 OPS. This year, he will only be able to watch and ponder how to make sure he doesn’t watch again next year.

“To not be going is definitely a disappointment,” Werth said. “But I think if you look back at the season, if you look at the run we went on and how good we played down the stretch, a lot of positives can be taken away. I think this winter we really need to take a step back and look at things as a whole and really organizationally take a look at how we can get better, how we can compete. Hopefully this will never happen again.”

When Werth and the Nationals take that step back, their late-season run toward contention will help color their outlook. It may have sputtered to a halt with three losses in St. Louis, but the Nationals have still gone 30-15 since Aug. 9. It was not good enough to get them into the playoffs, but it was not without meaning, either.

“I think it shows that we have the talent in this room to contend and compete next year,” center fielder Denard Span said. “Hopefully the front office sees it that way, and so does the rest of the city. We got what we need in this room. We don’t need a major makeover for this team. I think we have what it takes. Look at how bad we played for three or four months, and how good we played for the last month and a half, we’re still playing for something going to the last week, that just shows you how good we can be.”

Had the Nationals stayed on their midseason pace, they may be more to prone to blowing up their roster and starting over. They should not assume all is perfect – they went 14-31 against National League playoff teams, which reveals their standing among the league’s elite. But they can at least take a measured approach.

The Nationals may have failed to meet expectations, but at least the front office knows they are not dealing with the chicken-and-beer Red Sox. The edges of the roster can be upgraded and some tweaks can be made. But their core players did not allow initial disappointment to lead to more disappointment or full-blown disaster. The final month and a half showed there is no rot beneath the surface. Teams that win games in the mid-80s shouldn’t be blown up.

“It’s hard to win and be consistent all year,” third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. “We got off to a bad start and couldn’t turn it around quick enough. The fact that we didn’t just shut it down and continued to play, we gave it a pretty good run and got a lot closer than a lot of people thought. I think it’s a good way to go into next year. It doesn’t really make you feel any better right now.”

The Nationals finish will also help them consider every option in their managerial search. Randy Knorr will may not get the job, but he will at least receive a fair shake. Had the Nationals not surged, it would be difficult to hire an internal candidate to replace Davey Johnson. If the Nationals come to the conclusion Knorr is the best choice, they will have a much easier time selling it to fans and media.

The Nationals also answered some individual questions. More than at any point during the year, Zimmerman looks like the Nationals’ 2014 third baseman Did you see him make that play Sunday night? He caught a grounder flat-footed behind the bag and fired across the diamond, with some steam on it. Moving Zimmerman to first base should always be a last resort because of what it does to his offensive value – he’s an elite offensive third baseman but would be only a little above average at first. After what the Nationals have seen over the last month, they’re much further away from that last resort with Zimmerman than they were in May.

If nothing, it made September more fun, didn’t it? The end may have been just as bitter, but the journey was more rewarding for fans. It wasn’t enough, but it wasn’t a slog.  The Nationals could not redeem their slow first four months of the season, but their commendable effort at least made their offseason a little clearer.

FROM THE POST

Dan Haren looks back at a trying season that finished with a rebound.

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