Sep 26, 2015, 10:12 PM EDT
For weeks, the Nationals knew this day would come. They knew their inevitable fate of being eliminated from the playoff race was going to happen, one way or another.
There were nights when it seemed like it was already over, then the window would open and a glimmer of light would shine through. There were many opportunities over the last few weeks to put pressure on the first place New York Mets. But each time the game of baseball reminded them that preseason expectations, no matter how valid in their reasoning, mean nothing when it’s all said and done.
The Nationals season breathed its last breath on Saturday night. The fact they walked off the Phillies an hour later in the drizzling rain on South Capitol St. became an ironic afterthought. It was all over and it ended way earlier than anyone had planned.
“I never thought we’d end up here,” Jayson Werth said. “Obviously, we’ve underachieved. We haven’t played well. We’ve done a lot of things that got us here. But I would’ve never guessed that. I would’ve never thought we’d be sitting here having this conversation with seven or eight games left. Would’ve bet the other way.”
Both the Mets and Nationals celebrated on Saturday night. The Mets had a champagne shower in the visitors clubhouse in Cincinnati. The Nats rushed the field in Washington to pour chocolate sauce and other liquids on Bryce Harper, who hit a walk-off double to seal the victory.
But the Nationals will have plenty to think about once the dust settles on this day. Chances to win a World Series do not come around often and with the way this roster was constructed – many players were retained who are set for free agency this winter – this was as good an opportunity as many members of the Nationals will ever get.
That fact is not lost on the Nationals, who know the team could be a much different group on Opening Day 2016.
“I think I said that in February that this could be the last run of this core group of guys. It’s got a chance to be drastically different next year, so that’s tough,” Werth said. “This is my fifth year here. Played with these guys, get to know these guys, go to work with these guys every year. You’re basically family.”
“We had the pieces in place to have a special season. It didn’t happen,” Casey Janssen said. “It’s kind of a season with a lot of what ifs. I think on a personal level, I underachieved a little bit. I think a lot of people would have a similar statement. We dealt with a lot of injuries, but the bottom line is we didn’t get it done.”
“Sometimes this game isn’t fair,” Stephen Strasburg said. “Every single one of these guys competed all year. We dealt with some adversity, but we battled through it. That’s all you can do. It just didn’t work out this year.”
The reasons for why the Nationals will not be playing in the postseason are numerous. They had an inordinate amount of injuries in the first half of the season. Then, they got healthy and it took time for players like Werth, Ryan Zimmerman and Anthony Rendon to get their timing back at the plate. The indispensable Denard Span appeared in only 61 games before being lost for the year.
There were mistakes made by their manager Matt Williams that are well-documented. His use of the bullpen came into question on many nights and some could argue his steadfast approach of not looking at the big picture, not seeing bad losses for what they were, held him and his team back from learning from their missteps.
The rotation was nowhere near what it was supposed to be. The Nationals had the best starters ERA in 2014 and then signed former Cy Young-winner Max Scherzer. It was predicted to be a historically dominant group. But Strasburg was held back by injuries in the early months, Jordan Zimmermann and Gio Gonzalez were inconsistent, and Doug Fister had the worst season of his career. Even Scherzer failed on several occasions when they needed him.
The bullpen was the team’s weakest link for much of the season. They couldn’t overcome the departure of Tyler Clippard and the early loss of Craig Stammen. After trading for closer Jonathan Papelbon, Drew Storen – who had pitched at an All-Star level in the first half – became their biggest liability.
Young, promising arms came up only to show their inexperience. Guys like Aaron Barrett and Blake Treinen did not progress like the front office projected they would.
Janssen was signed to be the team’s setup man, to bring a veteran presence to the back of the Nats’ bullpen. He did not have the season he was supposed to have, either, and knows things could have been different if the bullpen was better as a collective group.
“I think any good team, it starts on the mound. It starts with starting pitching. And if the starters are working deep into games it gives the bullpen a little rest every once in a while. [After the All-Star break], we were in a lot of tight games. We were using a lot of guys every night. We started to struggle as a group and we couldn’t stop the bad snowball. It just happened to be at a time in our season when were counted on greatly. At the end of the day, as a team you can look at everything, but I think for us as a bullpen we probably circle that time of the season where had we performed better we definitely wouldn’t have been eliminated today. It might have changed things.”
The Nationals have eight games remaining on their schedule, eight meaningless games that include three at the New York Mets before they call it a year. Williams, for one, is not ready to reflect on what went wrong until the season is actually over.
“We got games to play. Can’t do that. We gotta to win tomorrow. I mean we’re here. We have to play games. We’ve got some remaining. We want to play well in those games. After the fact, we’ll have a chance to look back at it,” he said.
Williams was asked if he addressed his team after the game, knowing their season was essentially over. He hadn’t.
“I haven’t spoken to them yet. You’re going to have to ask them what they feel. I can tell you this, we’re trying to win and the game that we’re playing is most important.”
Many Nats players were indeed asked how they felt and Harper, for one, has already come to terms with what will ultimately be looked at as a lost season.
“It’s just baseball. It’s just a game you play. There’s a lot of things in life that are bigger than just baseball. We’ll all come back in tomorrow and play this game,” he said. “I think, the next couple days – the next week or so – a lot of these guys won’t be in this clubhouse anymore. So, we’re gonna try to enjoy this as a team and just really have some fun and play hard and see where we’re at.”
All that is left to play for is pride and statistics. Then, on the night of Oct. 4 in New York, an offseason that could bring momentous change to the organization will finally begin.
FINAL NL EAST STANDINGS
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As ESPN-980 AM's Nats Insider, Mark makes daily appearances on the station's various shows. Here's the 2015 schedule (subject to change)...
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