You will hear a lot about the 2019 Nationals in the coming weeks as the most recent and extreme example of just how much a team’s fortunes can change over the course of a regular 162-game schedule. In every season since MLB added the wild-card game in 2012, at least one team that made the playoffs would have been left out in a 60-game season, including the past two NL champions.
While a shortened season would have hurt the Nationals last year, the team stood to benefit from a 60-game sprint in 2005, 2015 and 2018. With the caveat that teams undoubtedly would have behaved differently in previous years if they knew the regular season would be trimmed by 102 games, here’s a look at every Nationals campaign through 60 games and what came next.
Record: 34-26, first in NL East, two games up
Notable: Livan Hernandez improved to 9-2 with a 3.35 ERA and Chad Cordero earned his 17th save in a 4-3 win over the Oakland Athletics on June 9 that kept the surprising Nationals alone atop the NL East through 60 games. Nick Johnson and Ryan Church were hitting .341 and .336, respectively.
And then what happened?: Washington led the division by 5½ games after improving to a season-high 19 games over .500 on July 3, but the lead was gone less than three weeks later. The Nationals finished their memorable first season in the District 81-81, eight games out of the wild-card spot.
Record: 27-33, fourth in NL East, 10 games back
Notable: Alfonso Soriano had 22 home runs, 45 RBI and 13 stolen bases while playing in every one of the Nationals’ first 60 games.
And then what happened?: Soriano finished with 46 home runs and 41 stolen bases, becoming only the fourth member of baseball’s 40-40 club. The Nationals foundered to a 71-91 record in Manager Frank Robinson’s final season, finishing 26 games behind the division-winning New York Mets.
Record: 24-36, fifth in NL East, 12 games back
Notable: Dmitri Young hit .329 with six home runs and 30 RBI in Washington’s first 60 games and earned his second all-star selection.
And then what happened?: Da Meat Hook stayed hot, but the Nationals never caught fire in Manager Manny Acta’s first season, finishing 73-89. Ryan Zimmerman led the team with 24 home runs, while Matt Chico led all Washington starters with seven wins.
Record: 24-36, fifth in NL East, 10½ games back
Notable: Zimmerman christened Nationals Park with a walk-off home run in the season opener, but Washington lost nine straight after starting 3-0. Aaron Boone batted cleanup in the Nationals’ 60th game, which was a sign that perhaps the season should have ended that day.
And then what happened?: Washington lost 12 straight in August and stumbled to a 59-102 final record that enabled it to select Stephen Strasburg with the No. 1 pick in the following year’s draft. Zimmerman and Lastings Milledge tied for the team lead in home runs with 14, while Cristian Guzman hit .316.
Record: 17-43, fifth in NL East, 18 games back
Notable: The Natinals’ (sic) worst start through 60 games featured some excitement in the form of Zimmerman’s 30-game hitting streak, the longest by a third baseman since George Brett in 1980. Zimmerman hit .315 with 11 home runs and 40 RBI in Washington’s first 60 games and earned his first all-star nod.
And then what happened?: Acta was fired in July and replaced by Jim Riggleman. Despite winning seven straight to end the regular season, the Nationals finished 59-103, which was the worst record in baseball for the second straight year. Hello, Bryce Harper.
Record: 29-31, fourth in NL East, five games back
Notable: In a memory that ranks slightly above Nyjer Morgan slamming his glove on the warning track dirt the previous month, Strasburg made his big league debut in the Nationals’ 59th game, striking out 14 Pittsburgh Pirates at Nationals Park.
And then what happened?: The Nationals finished 69-93, better than five teams.
Record: 26-34, fifth in NL East, 10 games back
Notable: Danny Espinosa led the team in home runs at the 60-game mark with 10, one more than Mike Morse, who was in the midst of a career year.
And then what happened?: Riggleman resigned and went to Caddies after the Nationals moved over .500 for the first time in June since 2005. He was replaced by Davey Johnson. Morse finished with 31 home runs, 10 more than Espinosa.
Record: 37-23, first in NL East, three games up
Notable: Harper made his major league debut in late April and hit his seventh home run in Washington’s 60th game. “That’s a clown question, bro,” the teenage slugger, who is Mormon, said that night after a Toronto TV reporter asked him whether he would be taking advantage of Canada’s lower drinking age.
And then what happened?: The Nationals finished 98-64, clinching their first division title by four games. The St. Louis Cardinals’ Pete Kozma helped spoil Washington’s first playoff appearance, handing it a heart-wrenching loss in the NLDS, which would become a theme over the next eight years.
Record: 29-31, third in NL East, eight games back
Notable: “World Series or bust,” Johnson declared after the Nationals signed right-hander Dan Haren in the offseason. Haren had a 5.45 ERA through Washington’s first 60 games, which are symbolized by Harper running face first into the outfield wall at Dodger Stadium.
And then what happened?: Washington rebounded to finish 10 games over .500, but it wasn’t enough to clinch a playoff spot. Johnson retired after the season.
Record: 31-29, second in NL East, one game back
Notable: The Nationals were in a three-way tie with the Dodgers and Cardinals for the second wild-card spot through 60 games of Matt Williams’s first season at the helm.
And then what happened?: Washington ran away with the division, finishing 96-66 to win its second division title by 17 games. San Francisco eliminated the Nationals in the NLDS in four games, including an 18-inning Giants win in Game 2.
Record: 31-29, tied for first in NL East
Notable: The Nationals would have played a tiebreaker against the New York Mets to determine the division winner, with the loser of that game missing the postseason. Harper hit .328, had a .464 on-base percentage and slugged .707 with as many walks (50) as strikeouts and had 20 home runs and 47 RBI in the Nationals’ first 60 games of his MVP season.
And then what happened?: Harper couldn’t carry the team himself and was involved in an ugly dugout scuffle with trade deadline acquisition Jonathan Papelbon on fan appreciation day. The Nationals lost the division lead for good Aug. 2 and finished 83-79, seven games behind the Mets. Williams, who never did do the Babe Ruth impression he promised his team, was fired after the season.
Record: 36-24, first in NL East, two games up
Notable: Daniel Murphy was hitting .374 with 11 home runs and 42 RBI through 60 games, with much of that damage coming against his former team, the Mets. Max Scherzer tied the major league record with 20 strikeouts in a win over the Tigers in May.
And then what happened?: Washington cruised to a 96-win season in Dusty Baker’s first season as manager and took the division by eight games before losing to the Dodgers in the NLDS.
Record: 38-22, first in NL East, 11 games up
Notable: Despite having one of the worst bullpens in baseball, the Nationals had their most wins through 60 games in team history.
And then what happened?: Washington rolled to its second straight division title. In a bounce-back season, Zimmerman finished with 36 home runs and 108 RBI and earned his second all-star nod. Zimmerman hit the game-winning home run in Game 2 of the NLDS against the Chicago Cubs, but the season ended with another crushing Game 5 loss and Baker being fired.
Record: 35-25, tied for first in NL East
Notable: The Nationals and Braves would have played a tiebreaker for the division, with the loser claiming the first wild-card spot. Odds are that Juan Soto, with all of 16 games under his belt, would have come up with a big hit.
And then what happened?: After going 20-7 in May, the Nationals went 9-16 in June to drop out of playoff position. They finished 82-80 in Martinez’s first season as manager, their fewest wins since 2011.
Record: 27-33, fourth in NL East, six games back
Notable: A four-game sweep at Citi Field left the Nationals a season-worst 19-31 on May 24. Martinez’s hot seat was every bit as combustible as his bullpen, and Washington’s playoff odds were around 3 percent.
And then what happened?: Two weeks later, Gerardo Parra changed his walk-up music to “Baby Shark.” The Nationals proceeded to go 1-0 more often than not, including in the last game of the year. Doink.
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