Looking back, seven months later, the optimism is hard to recognize and scarcely seems justifiable. But there were the Washington Nationals, congregating in the outdated concrete ballpark known as Space Coast Stadium, drinking in both what they had accomplished and what they thought possible.
It was February, four months after they had completed a season in which they won more games than any team in the National League. The row of lockers on the right side of the home clubhouse in Viera, Fla., where the pitchers gathered, included not only all five members of the sport’s best starting rotation from the previous season but Max Scherzer, the most expensive offseason addition for any major league team.
Not a pitch had been thrown. Not a game had been played.
“Such a good vibe,” reliever Drew Storen said, walking through the clubhouse one morning as his teammates ate bowls of cereal poured by themselves and omelets prepared by a short-order cook. “Relaxed but a good relaxed. Serious.”
The Nationals’ season is over now, even with six games to play. The relaxed vibe disappeared months ago, devolving into depths unforeseeable before the season — clubhouse discord, player revolt against the manager, all culminating with a dugout fight in which newly acquired closer Jonathan Papelbon attacked Bryce Harper, the likely National League MVP, hands around his throat. Now all that’s left is the fallout, a serious fallout at that. The Nationals were eliminated Saturday, a development that in February would have seemed incomprehensible, yet as they wheezed closer to the end became merely inevitable, a formality.
It’s impossible to view the 2015 Nationals without considering the expectations within the clubhouse, in the stands and across the sport. Because those expectations had roots in last season’s division winners and gained momentum in an active offseason, The Washington Post spoke to several key figures in the organization throughout the season, conversations designed to document their thoughts and emotions in real time — but saved for publication until the team’s fate was determined.
That fate seemed so far off in February, when flaws were hard to identify and any that were found seemed fixable. Matt Williams led the team to 96 wins and was named the National League’s manager of the year during his first season as a big league skipper. Surely he would grow from the experience of being outmaneuvered in an excruciating playoff loss to San Francisco the previous October. The bullpen would be without setup man Tyler Clippard, not to mention erstwhile closer Rafael Soriano and lefty swingman Ross Detwiler. But Storen had taken over the closer role, and a bevy of new arms surely would fill in the 1971/3 innings lost to those departures.
Jayson Werth, the veteran outfielder, wouldn’t play a game in spring training following offseason shoulder surgery but would be ready early in the season. No worries. Anthony Rendon, the best offensive player in 2014, tweaked his knee in early March but would be back in a few days or a week or a couple weeks — at some point, anyway. Not a problem. Denard Span, the leadoff man and center fielder who led the National League in hits the previous year, needed surgery on an abdominal muscle in early March. But this would allow the club to look at promising rookie Michael A. Taylor until Span healed.
Yunel Escobar, the shortstop acquired in the Clippard trade whom the Nats wanted to move to second base, was hauled into General Manager Mike Rizzo’s office and told he would have to play third in Rendon’s absence. He wasn’t happy but had no choice.
Optimism obscured all the issues. Harper, the 22-year-old outfielder, arrived at spring training, sat down with reporters in Space Coast Stadium’s dugout and considered the signing of Scherzer and how he would line up with Jordan Zimmermann and Stephen Strasburg and Doug Fister in a postseason rotation. He asked, brazenly, “Where’s my ring?”
Vegas installed the Nationals as 6-1 favorites to win the World Series. Baseball Prospectus’s PECOTA projections, a stat-based, quasi-scientific method used to predict all aspects of a season, picked the Nationals to win 92 games and take the NL East by 10 games. All 15 ESPN “experts” who made picks before the year chose the Nats as division champs, the only unanimous selection. Six of those experts picked the Nats to win the World Series, three times as many as any other team.
Each player in the clubhouse was aware of such expectations, if not the specifics then the general theme: Washington was supposed to be exceptional. Ryan Zimmerman, the longest-tenured National, sat on a stool in front of a locker in Jupiter, Fla., and tried to be realistic about what lay ahead.
“We all wish we could not have to go through the season and just play in the playoffs. That’d be sweet,” he said. “But what we’ve learned: Nothing’s ever given to you. People want to say we’re the favorite to win the division? Whatever. If you’re in sales and you’re expected to be the lead sales person, you’re expected to sell more than anyone else again. There’s pressure on you, but that’s what you want. You don’t want to be expected to finish fifth.
“We know that it’s not going to be easy. At least I do. And I think everyone in the room has kind of learned that as well. We’ve all kind of been through it now. When you’re the best team or supposed to be the best team, everyone wants to beat you even more then. We’ll see.”
As the Nationals traveled north for opening day against the New York Mets, Span, Rendon and Werth were not ready to play. The absence of the first-, second- and third-place hitters in the lineup created upheaval on the field and unfamiliarity around the edges.
“Some of this stuff, who we have, I haven’t seen because I was working out on the minor league side,” Werth said. “I didn’t see Clint Robinson play all spring.”
He thought for a moment. This 30-year-old rookie, left-handed hitter, big guy. “Is that his name? Robinson?” Werth asked. “I don’t even know what his name is.”
If any of this concerned Rizzo, he wasn’t letting on. Rizzo believed, unwaveringly, not only in the major league roster he and his staff had assembled but in the organizational depth that backed it up. No matter the injury or ailment, Rizzo felt as if the Nationals were built to endure, and he would quickly replace an unavailable player with the next guy in line.
“We’ve done everything we can do to put the best possible product on the field,” Rizzo said as he stood in the home dugout at Nationals Park, jacket on to brace from the spring chill before the team’s final exhibition game. “It’s not perfect. There’s no perfect teams. But we’ve put together a good organization. . . .
“Now the players got to play. And it’s up to the players. This is a player-driven business. And they’re humans.”
On a lovely, 76-degree opening day, 42,295 fans were on hand at Nationals Park ready to embrace the team and Scherzer, its new $210 million bauble. With Taylor hitting leadoff and veteran reclamation project Dan Uggla at second base, the makeshift lineup couldn’t hit Mets right-hander Bartolo Colon .
Heading into the sixth, the Nats held a 1-0 lead. With two outs and a runner on first, Scherzer got Mets third baseman David Wright to swing at his first pitch, and he popped it up toward second, directly toward Uggla. Desmond, the shortstop, pursued, too, drifting 50 feet to the right of second base. Had one of his familiar teammates been at second — Rendon or Danny Espinosa — perhaps Desmond would have relented. Instead, he kept going, until his drift resembled a sprint. Uggla had settled directly under the ball. Desmond called him off. Uggla ducked. Desmond dropped it, the first of two errors he made that day, both of which led to runs.
“I feel like one of those Little Leaguers,” Desmond said afterward. A franchise stalwart, he was embarrassed. Instead of Scherzer getting out of the inning, the Mets took the lead. No play was more important in the Nationals’ first loss of the season.
That afternoon, it was easy to shrug off, and indeed Washington won its next game when Zimmermann outdueled the Mets’ Jacob deGrom. But as the Nationals trudged to a slow start – losing six of their first eight games — one dynamic of the team became inescapable: Desmond, Zimmermann, Span and Fister would all be free agents at the end of the season. How they responded to the pressure of playing in a contract year — with all the money for themselves and their families at stake — was unknowable.
Did Desmond drop the ball opening day because it likely was his last as the Nationals’ shortstop? Of course not. Did he hit .217 with nine errors in April because he was preoccupied with the uncertainty of playing for a lucrative free agent contract? That’s harder to answer.
“I don’t think anybody in that situation will tell you or admit to that [messing] with their head,” Werth said. “It doesn’t necessarily have to, but it definitely can. There’s a very small difference between really making it and total despair. I mean, it’s a very small window.”
Werth had endured the uncertainties of a walk season with the Phillies in 2010. “I use this analogy all the time: You can always go work at Sears. You know? A lot of baseball players don’t really have a whole lot else going on. Very few guys majored in finance and then are all set up at UBS or Morgan Stanley when they’re done. This is what you’ve always wanted to do. This is what you’ve only done your whole life. You don’t really know anything different. This is the path you chose for yourself. This is what you want. And now you have one season to define not only the rest of your life but your whole life up to that point.”
In the Nationals’ seventh game of the year, Desmond made his fifth error. Two batters later, Zimmermann allowed a home run to Boston’s Mookie Betts, and the Nationals lost. Desmond went 0 for 4 to drop to 3 for 26 on the season. He could neither field nor hit. He looked nothing short of a mess.
“Every day, I think it’s going to change,” Desmond said the following afternoon, standing on the grass just to the side of the Fenway Park infield. But he was already taking measures to force that change. After spending most of the winter growing an Afro that spilled from his hat and a patch of hair on his chin, he shaved his head and his face clean. Hitting .115 and making routine grounders an adventure? He would try anything.
No one on the Nationals, though, asked Desmond to change. “He’s the same,” Storen said in the visitors’ clubhouse at Fenway. “We know who he is. It’s not like it’s because he’s not working.”
“This is kind of how ‘Desi’ starts the season anyway,” Werth said, and it was true. The previous April, Desmond made six errors in an eight-game stretch. “It’s okay. Everybody has their own things they do. You just got to hang with him.”
That was the Nationals’ intention, their only option. A week tells almost nothing about the scope of a season, and veterans know that.
“I understand the kind of player I am,” Desmond said that day. But that night, he made yet another error to start a seventh-inning Red Sox rally. On a crucial first-and-third situation in the same inning, he was playing in on the grass, poised to cut down the runner at the plate. He snagged a grounder. But he couldn’t unleash the throw home, tossing to first instead. The go-ahead run scored. The Nats lost again.
That night, Desmond returned to his room at the Westin Copley Plaza, dazed. He called his wife, Chelsey — the tomboy he met at their Florida grade school, now mother to his three sons — and opened up a vein. In the weeds of baseball’s we’ll-get-’em tomorrow world, there are very real thorns.
“Every time I want to put my head down and just get frustrated, I’ve just got to literally tell myself, ‘Pick your head up. Pick your head up!’ ” Desmond said. “‘There’s nothing to be ashamed of. You’re a good man. You’re a man of faith. You’re a good husband. You’re a good father.’ And that stuff is stuff that pushes me through slumps. This game is so success driven that the failure . . .” He paused.
“Often, you feel like a failure,” he said.
Chelsey Desmond’s job, then, became to prop up her husband. She told him that his sons loved them. She told him they were doing a great job raising their family. She told him that it’s a long season, that things take care of themselves. “All the stuff that I should be thinking and, in a normal state of mind, all the stuff that I would be thinking,” Ian said.
“So many times throughout my career, minor leagues and major leagues, there’s been a situation where I’ve got to rely on hope, you know what I’m saying?” Desmond said. “And that hope is drawn from all the people that are encouraging me and believing in me. So no matter how I feel on a personal level, I don’t want to say it’s like I’m playing for them, but it’s kind of like they’re giving me the energy to play through what I’m going through.”
The support through the struggles came from all corners. Mark Lerner, one of the team’s owners, texted Desmond a photo of the shortstop at a community appearance, telling him how much he had come to mean to the city. Rizzo, who in 2011 resisted a push from ownership to trade Desmond, sent occasional texts of his own:
“You’re going to help us win,” one said.
“We’re running you out there every day,” another read.
“I know what Ian Desmond is,” Rizzo said. “I know what kind of guy he’s going to be. At the end of the year, I know what he’s going to be. What I do know is every . . . day he’s at shortstop for me. And that means a lot. No matter what. This guy, he’s at shortstop for me every day.
“There’s something settling about that. There’s something soothing about that. I know who’s playing shortstop for me tomorrow. That’s why, when the whole world is piling on him, I got to say to him, specifically, ‘Glad you’re here, man.’ ”
When the Nationals arrived in Atlanta the last week of April, they were sputtering. They had been swept — and swept badly — in Miami, and they came to Turner Field losers of five straight. Williams did away with the normal pre-series advance scouting meeting and instead stood in front of his players and reminded them that on June 1 of the previous year, they were a listless 27-28 — and they went on to take the division by 17 games.
Rizzo, who accompanies his team on the road more than any general manager in baseball, left the Nats in Miami on Sunday to visit the franchise’s facility in the Dominican Republic. But he felt some urgency to get back to Atlanta, to get back to the club.
When the Nats dropped the first of a three-game set to the Braves, Uggla eschewed the idea that the club just needed to catch a break for its fortunes to change. “We just got to sack up,” he said.
Rizzo, meanwhile, churned over the problems facing a postseason favorite that stood 7-13, in last place, already eight games off the division lead.
“How can I fix this? What can I do?” Rizzo thought. “Do I go in and raise hell? Do I go in and pat ’em on the back? Do I stay out? Do I send somebody down? Do I try to make a trade? Do I meet with the coaches? What’s the best route that I can help? What do I do?”
By that point, Rizzo had already tried one move, essentially cutting left-handed reliever Xavier Cedeno, who made the club out of spring training for two reasons: He was out of minor league options, so the Nats couldn’t send him to the minors without exposing him to other teams, and the Nats decided to trade lefty Jerry Blevins to the Mets a week before the season began for outfielder Matt den Dekker. “We like the relief depth that we have,” Rizzo said. The trade also represented a modest financial savings for the Nationals; Blevins made $2.4 million, Cedeno $516,000, den Dekker $513,000.
So the Nationals had started the season with Cedeno and veteran Matt Thornton as their left-handed relievers. That made for a bullpen that included only Storen and right-handers Craig Stammen and Aaron Barrett from the opening day roster in 2014, a year in which Washington relievers posted a 3.00 ERA, the second best in the National League.
“It’s strange,” Storen said. “At one point last year, I had the least amount of [major league] service time in the bullpen. Now I’m second. And you could add my service time with everybody else’s service time in the bullpen, and it doesn’t even add up to Thornton. It goes to show you the volatility, how the turnover’s so quick.”
Much of the turnover was by design. During the offseason, Rizzo traded Clippard, who had one year before free agency, for Escobar, who was under contract through 2016 with a club option for 2017. The Nats also dealt away Detwiler, a former first-round pick who needed a career reboot elsewhere, and let Soriano walk. They signed veteran Casey Janssen, a former closer, as both insurance for Storen and as an eighth-inning option, but told other clubs they intended to develop sinker-balling Blake Treinen into their primary setup man.
“We felt like we had enough good arms — enough guys with stuff — with no experience in the minors ready to come,” Rizzo said. “Every year, I see the Cardinals bringing up a guy with no experience. I see the Braves, back in the day, bringing up guys with no experience. Unless you’re going to spend $14 million on a closer, then you’re going to have some turnover.”
Yet Janssen began the year on the disabled list (he was unable to pitch till late May). Stammen pitched in only five games before he tore a flexor and was lost for the season. And Williams, hamstrung by the losses, couldn’t seem to dial up favorable matchups for the pitchers who remained.
Cedeno, for instance, came into the season having allowed left-handed hitters a .254 average and a .358 slugging percentage. Those numbers against right-handed hitters: .343 and .520. The stats spelled out his role clearly: use him against lefties.
Yet on April 10, Williams summoned Cedeno with the bases loaded and one out in the seventh inning of a game the Nationals led by one run in Philadelphia. The Phillies countered with switch-hitting Cesar Hernandez, who cracked a two-run single batting right-handed. Two days later, Williams brought in Cedeno to start the seventh inning of a game the Nationals led by one run. The Phillies countered with right-handed pinch hitter Darin Ruf to bat in the pitcher’s spot, a predictable move. Ruf hit the tying home run. The following night in Boston, Cedeno walked two right-handed hitters and uncorked two wild pitches.
Was Cedeno no good? Or did Williams not know how to use him? Either way, when the Nationals removed him from the major league roster the next day, he had faced nine right-handed hitters and six lefties. The Nationals turned to their kids — rookies Matt Grace, Felipe Rivero and Sammy Solis, lefties who hadn’t thrown a pitch in the majors before the season.
“I knew we had the depth,” Rizzo said. “We just had to get them comfortable on their own, comfortable in their roles. But what I didn’t plan on was Janssen not being here and Stammen not being here. Excuse me for not knowing that they both were going to get hurt.”
The second game in Atlanta the night of April 28 was Scherzer’s turn in the rotation. It was the kind of moment for which he was signed, to break up a losing streak and turn the season around. But Scherzer sprained his thumb while hitting in Miami and had to miss a turn. The Nats called up prospect A.J. Cole from Class AAA Syracuse for his major league debut. By the end of the second inning, Cole was rattled and done, and the Braves led 9-1.
“You can’t just play like [crap] in the first half and expect to win,” Werth said. “You got to give yourself a chance. You can’t continue to play like this. I don’t think we will. . . .
“Things were going so bad, but so what? We just had that . . . mentality. We didn’t care that we lost six in a row. That’s what makes this team so good.”
So the Nationals chipped away. In the third inning, Span, playing in just his eighth game, led off with a double. Desmond grounded to the right side, pushing Span to third. Werth, playing in his 13th game, scored him with a sacrifice fly.
Rizzo, sitting alongside the dugout, peeked in. “The dugout was fired up,” he said. “I’m like, ‘Wow. Pretty impressive.’ ”
By the time Jose Lobaton singled and Espinosa walked against Braves closer Jason Grilli in the ninth, the Nationals were within 12-10. Up came Uggla, once signed by the Braves to a five-year, $62 million deal, cut by the Braves with a year left on it because he hit .179 in 2013 and .162 in 2014. Those who remained in the Turner Field crowd let him know they remembered.
“I was probably expecting to get booed,” Uggla said. “But I don’t know to that extent.”
As Uggla walked to the plate, Rizzo thought one thing to himself: “This guy might . . . hit one out.” Except Grilli started him with two strikes. Uggla exhaled.
“You know what?” he thought. “Let’s strap it on, and let’s see who’s better right here.”
Chaw in his cheek, Uggla stepped back in the box. He scowled at Grilli. “He’s got the look when he gets up to the plate like, ‘You did something to me,’ ” Storen said.
Uggla strapped it on. He sent Grilli’s next fastball to deep left-center. Grilli knew the outcome as soon as the ball sailed over his head. Uggla looked at the trajectory for a moment, then tossed his bat to the side and began to trot.
“I get goosebumps thinking about it,” Werth said.
A seventh loss in a row turned into a 13-12 victory. The Nationals won 11 of 13 games. They won nine straight series. On May 19, they pulled into first place. From all the optimism of spring training, they had endured tumult and self-doubt, slow starts and poor performance, and seemed to survive.
“We are a really good team,” Werth said. “We are really good in the second half. When teams start falling off, that’s when we get strong. We’ll see.”
About this series: The Washington Nationals had the most wins in the National League in 2014 and headed into the 2015 season as World Series favorites. With expectations high, Post national baseball writer Barry Svrluga spoke to several key members of the organization throughout the season to document their thoughts and emotions in real time, with the understanding they would be not published until the team’s fate was determined.
More on the Nationals from Barry Svrluga:
Destiny Denied: The rise and fall of the 2015 Nationals