DENVER — The cleanup was quick and quiet. The hugs were brief and unemotional, the goodbyes filled with laughter and not tears.
A handful of teams played games Sunday that could have determined who won division championships or when and where playoff journeys would begin. The Nationals were not one of them. They played nine innings of meaningless baseball against the host Colorado Rockies and lost, 12-0, the message long since received: Whatever talent they amassed on paper this season, the Nationals never looked like a playoff team. When it was time to go home, they were ready — in part because they never came close.
Sunday’s game was one of the few blowouts the Nationals experienced this year, and it therefore provided a fitting ending to a season that might as well have been a 162-game reality check. They finished 82-80, their worst record since 2011.
“You play 162 games. It’s a marathon, and it shows you who you are,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said before the game. “I think this season has shown us who we are. We’ve earned the record that we have.”
Manager Dave Martinez seemed to feel the end more than most. Before the game, Rizzo reiterated that he has not considered any scenario in which Martinez does not manage this team next year. For now, it seems, he will get a chance to grow.
But Martinez’s eyes welled when he talked about Bryce Harper, as well as when he talked about the season, rattling off positives he saw in player after player, expressing how proud he is of this team and that it never fell apart.
“I want to reiterate,” Martinez said after the loss. “I’m proud of the boys.”
But other than Martinez’s thoughts and the rare reflections Rizzo offered earlier in the day, no overwhelming disappointment or sentimentality gripped the clubhouse. Perhaps preparation makes all the difference. The Nationals have been ready for this day for weeks, and they already had passed through most of the stages of baseball grief.
The past few days qualified as laid back, with players piled on couches watching football, occasionally tearing their eyes away to sign a jersey for a teammate. Many of those jerseys had No. 34 on the back. Many of the requests were directed to Harper. After all, he might not wear a Nationals jersey again. He finished 2 for 4 in the finale; he doubled twice, including in his last at-bat.
But his teammates did little else in front of a screaming, near-sellout crowd, which had packed Coors Field to see whether the Rockies, who began the day tied with the Los Angeles Dodgers atop the National League West, would finish the day alone there. They did not; both teams won, and they will meet for a tiebreaker game for the division title Monday in Los Angeles.
In Milwaukee, Gio Gonzalez threw five scoreless innings in the most important game of the year for the Brewers, who began the day tied with the Chicago Cubs atop the NL Central. In Chicago, Matt Adams and his St. Louis Cardinals tried to knock off Daniel Murphy’s Cubs and send them to a tiebreaker or even the wild-card game. But wins by the Brewers and Cubs set up a tiebreaker game of their own Monday in Chicago.
The Nationals were insulated from the hype, their minds wandering through statistics and mistakes, to flights home and vacations on the horizon, detached from Sunday’s outcomes. Their plans, long since set in stone, were not subject to change.
Victor Robles hit the first pitch of a chilly afternoon up the middle. Two pitches later, the Rockies picked him off. These are the things the Nationals did too often this season, the unnecessary little mistakes that feel small until they happen again and again. Those are the little things that everyone in that clubhouse agreed undid them this year, the things that will require conscious correction in spring training. For years, those things have fallen by the wayside here. This season changed everyone’s perspective.
“I think that we have to work on the small aspects of the game, the attention to detail, really embracing and realizing every 90 feet is important, every base is crucial,” Rizzo said. “And it’s really shown us and our fan base and our ownership group and our front office that winning in the big leagues isn’t easy. It’s a difficult task. We’ve made it look pretty easy the last seven years.”
For the seventh straight season, the Nationals finished with a winning record. And they did not play a season entirely devoid of positives. Trea Turner became the first Nationals player to play in all 162 games since Ryan Zimmerman in 2007, and he led the league with 43 stolen bases. Juan Soto became the most prolific offensive teenager since Harper, second only to Tony Conigliaro for home runs by a teenager in a season with 22.
Anthony Rendon compiled the best season of his career: He hit .308 with 24 homers and 92 RBI despite missing three weeks with a broken toe. Max Scherzer became the sixth pitcher in 25 years to strike out 300 batters.
“For all the downs and lows this year had,” Harper said, “there were a lot of good things for this organization as well.”
But because of injuries, trades and other circumstances, the organization shuttled 53 players in and out of the clubhouse. Young pitchers got on-the-job training, and it did not always go well. Erick Fedde, starting in place of Scherzer because the Nationals didn’t want to risk their ace Sunday, lasted just four innings, and he finished with a 5.54 ERA in 11 starts. Austin Voth and Kyle McGowin allowed the Rockies to pile on late, bludgeoning the Nationals to the very end of a season that was over long before Sunday.
“I think we’ve all learned a lot about what it takes to really, really win and become a world champion,” Martinez said. “This was a lesson learned.”
Time will tell how well this organization learns those lessons, the most significant of which is that winning requires more than showing up, and getting over the hump demands something different, something more. Perhaps the fractures this franchise suffered this season will heal stronger; perhaps they will help the Nationals rebuild. Even after previous disappointing years, playoff misses and postseason defeats, the consensus among the biggest names in the Nationals’ clubhouse was clear: This team had never been humbled quite like this.