Nine hats hang on the wall of the gym in Jayson Werth’s home, one for each of the division titles the Washington Nationals outfielder has won in his 15-year career. They are those hats players receive on the field after they clinch, the ones that always look a little goofy, brims hastily bent to taste in the champagne-soaked pictures.
For Werth, they serve as reminders of goals achieved and of dreams left unfulfilled. For all of those division champion hats, he has only one that says “World Series Champions.” No National has logged more playoff games than Werth. No Nationals player has seen his season end in October disappointment more often than Werth. Few acquire playoff experience without also acquiring playoff heartbreak.
“Do you learn anything from it? I don’t know. You learn you don’t like it,” Werth said. “Does it motivate you to work harder or something like that? Not really. We’re all pretty hard workers. That’s how we got here.”
Some baseball people would disagree. They would say losing teaches, motivates or is even a prerequisite to winning. If so, these Nationals should be as well-taught, well-motivated and ready to win as anybody.
This Nationals team has more playoff experience than any before it — 275 combined games, 223 2/3 innings pitched, 717 plate appearances. Werth, Daniel Murphy, Max Scherzer, Joe Blanton and Ryan Madson — potentially a fifth of their postseason roster, if Blanton makes it — have played in the World Series.
Those five, plus Howie Kendrick and Oliver Perez, have played in league championship series. It could be that just four players on their playoff roster — their final outfielder, Brandon Kintzler, and 10-year veterans Adam Lind and Matt Albers, would have no division series experience at all. If Enny Romero makes the bullpen, that number will be five.
Their manager, Dusty Baker, has been to the World Series as a player and manager. Their first base coach, Davey Lopes, played in a World Series and was the first base coach for Werth’s 2008 World Series champion Philadelphia Phillies. Their bench coach, Chris Speier, waved home the winning run in the 2001 World Series while he was the third base coach for the Arizona Diamondbacks. But will it matter?
Werth can hardly remember any of the 58 playoff games he’s played — just that they’re the most fun games he has ever played, and that he feels an increasing sense of calm with each passing round. One day, he thinks he’ll go back and watch all the playoff games he has played to see what happened. That day is years away. Some of those memories, particularly the disappointing ones, can be processed another time.
“[Losing] just kind of sticks with you. It’s kind of traumatizing. It sucks,” Werth said. “ … But I don’t know, other than trying not to lose again, for me you realize you just got to get there.”
As the Nationals lost in the division series three times in five seasons, some wondered about whether their confidence had been undermined — if losing so early, so often, had traumatized them somehow. To a man, they will deny it. One year, they say, is too different from the next.
“I get tired of hearing about losing,” said Baker, who has never won a World Series in two decades of managing, despite agonizingly close calls. “I don’t think losing. I think winning. You know what I’m saying? Unless you get there, you have no chance of doing anything.”
But exactly what impact experience has — and in the case of so many Nationals, negative experience — seems to depend on who you talk to. Sammy Solis’s first playoff experience, for example, included allowing the go-ahead run in Game 5 of the National League Division Series last season.
“I’ve never been so upset,” Solis said. “ … You feel like it’s almost on your shoulders. You let the team down.”
Ironically, Solis felt that his mechanics and stuff at the time were as good as they have been in his major league career. So when he struggled at times this season, working his way back from injury and re-honing his mechanics, Solis felt his best chance was to watch the footage of that final outing. It never stopped stinging.
“Seeing that hit just kind of reignited that fire,” Solis said.
Sean Doolittle allowed the tying run in the now-famous 2014 American League wild card game between the Oakland A’s and Kansas City Royals, the one that sent the Royals careening into the World Series in back-to-back seasons and left the A’s just short again.
Doolittle had pitched in the postseason before and learned to deal with the chaos that comes with it. He remembered his first postseason game against Max Scherzer’s Detroit Tigers in 2012, remembers walking out to the bullpen at Comerica Park and seeing white towels waving amid a rush of noise.
“Right away, I was like, ‘Well, this is different,’ ” Doolittle said. But that dose of playoff atmosphere helped him learn how to handle the noise, then harness it.
If there is an advantage to the Nationals’ experience levels, perhaps it is that familiarity with chaos.
Of those players potentially on the playoff roster, only Romero, Kintzler, Lind and Albers have never played in the postseason before. Albers, Lind and Kintzler have at least seven years of major league experience each. The only other fresh face would be Brian Goodwin or Victor Robles, if either makes the bench. Otherwise, everyone will be familiar with the added energy and general mental grind of games that require 100 percent attention, 100 percent of the time. One would assume that experience would help.
But playoff experience does more than teach. In Doolittle’s case, playoff experience has also tested him. While he bounced back from that 2014 loss with three strong regular seasons, he has not pitched in the postseason since.
“That’s an example of a game, a postseason loss you can grow from. Having lost and failed on that stage in the playoffs, then coming back from it, you can learn a lot about yourself. How tough you might be or might not be,” Doolittle said. “And how you process that can determine a lot of things for you moving forward.”
Any conversations around the Nationals’ collective playoff psyche eddy around that bullpen, which collapsed in 2012 and 2014. But no one that was a part of those bullpens will be a part of this year’s. The institutional memory is gone, replaced with some recollection of early-season struggles and some pitchers — like Kintzler and Romero — who have no playoff memory at all. Others, like newly acquired Madson and Blanton, have thrown more than 40 playoff innings each.
They accumulated many of those innings in 2008, when Werth, Lopes and the Phillies claimed the World Series — the only time Werth has won it all in eight tries so far. He said experience has taught him that World Series titles are hard to come by — and that the playoffs themselves are moments to be treasured, however they end.
“Those are the most fun games you’ve ever played because while there’s tons of stress, at the same times, they’re really fun. You just take your shots. You take your swings,” Werth said.
“ … you look back over the course of your career, and those [playoff seasons] are benchmarks. Those are things you can hang your hats on.”
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