By Matthew Jacobson
In 2012, the Nationals were a bright, upstart team, who happened to finish the season with the National League’s best record. As a reward, they had to face the winner of the newly-installed Wild Card Game, who happened to be the defending champion St. Louis Cardinals. Despite Jayson Werth’s franchise-defining home run in Game 4 (the birth of the WerthQuake), the Nationals completed an epic collapse in Game 5 (I was in attendance), and lost the series three games to two. It was the first postseason appearance in Washington Nationals franchise history, and things looked to be heading upward.
In 2013, Davey Johnson announced that the coming season would be his final one in Major League Baseball, proclaiming the 2013 season to be “World Series or Bust.” Well, it was a bust. The Nationals, despite finishing with a record 10 games above .500, came in second place, behind the Atlanta Braves. Johnson retired, Dan Haren moved on (one of the few blemishes on Mike Rizzo’s resume), and nobody really knew what to expect from this team going forward.
2014 was a whole different story. Matt Williams, who had spent the past few seasons as the third base coach for the Arizona Diamondbacks (who, at one point in their history, did not suck. They even won a World Series!) was hired as the manager of a young, talented, hungry ballclub. Despite several spats with players and the media throughout the course of the season, the Nationals won the division and, again, finished the regular season with the NL’s best record. Their opponent? The San Francisco Giants, who had won World Series’ in 2010 and 2012 (inspiring their playoff hashtag, #beliEVEN). The Nationals lost the first two games at home (it didn’t help that MLB scheduled games one and two not only on weekday afternoons, but game two happened to fall on one of the most important Jewish Holidays of the year). The Nats stole Game 3 against Madison Bumgarner, and looked to be ready to send the series back to Washington for a deciding Game 5, but Aaron Barrett’s wild pitch allowed San Francisco to score the eventual winning run, eliminating the Nationals in four games. The Giants would go on to win yet another World Series, behind a herculean effort from Madison Bumgarner in Game 7 against the Royals.
Despite signing proven ace Max Scherzer in the offseason, (prompting Bryce Harper to ask where his ring was) and the aforementioned Harper being unanimously named the most valuable player, 2015 was a rough year for the organization. Quite frankly, it was a year that the organization needed for success going forward. Leading the division for most of the year, but never quite able to put away the New York Mets, who would demoralize the Nationals in a three game series late in the year at Nationals Park. The Mets had come back to take the division lead, and that series against the Nats not only extended the lead, it put the Nats to bed for good. Cue the ensuing Papelbon/Harper spat, and Matt Williams, despite winning NL manager of the year just a season earlier, was sent packing (another blemish on the resume of Mike Rizzo).
The offseason following 2015 looked to be just as much of a gongshow as the prior season was. Free agent after free agent spurned the Nationals, some even taking less money (Ben Zobrist, Jason Heyward, Darren O’Day) to play for teams that they probably saw as not only a better chance to win, but also a less toxic atmosphere. The Nationals couldn’t even get a managerial hire right, settling on Bud Black at first, but refusing to pay him the agreed upon amount, as well as the agreed upon term (where have we heard that before…). Hindsight being 20/20, this was a blessing in disguise, as it forced the Nationals to hire their initial second choice; veteran skipper Dusty Baker, who despite criticisms of running young, talented arms into the ground, has been a portrait of managerial success for over two decades (despite what Cub fans will tell you).
This season, I didn’t really pay attention to the regular season that often. I watched the opening day game against the Braves, and would check scores the night of/morning after to see how the team was doing, but I didn’t live and die by every game. As a baseball fan, you can’t really do that. The season is 162 games long, and while winning in April and May sure help you get to October, the games frankly don’t start mattering until mid-late July, as the postseason picture starts to take form. The Nationals were excellent in April and May, storming out to a decent lead over the Metropolitans, a lead they would not relinquish, and a lead that would rarely ever be in doubt, especially following the final series before the all-star break where they took three of four in Flushing Meadows. Daniel Murphy (whose signing was heavily criticized), Stephen Strasburg, Bryce Harper, Max Scherzer, and Wilson Ramos were named all-stars, and everything seemed to be coming up roses for the Nats.
Down the stretch, the Nationals faltered a little bit, but still won the division convincingly over the Mets. Trea Turner proved to be even more of a steal than initially thought, ending the year with over 30 stolen bases, and solving the Nationals’ desperate need for a leadoff hitter. Jayson Werth turned it around after a disastrous start to the year. Despite all this, the Nationals come into the 2016 Postseason limping. Wilson Ramos is out for the foreseeable future with a torn ACL, severely hurting his future earnings in free agency as well. Steven Strasburg is out with a mystery injury (much to the delight of John Feinstein, who never seems to have anything nice to say about the Nationals organization), and Daniel Murphy missed the final few games of the regular season with an injury to his buttocks (I’m not making that up).
The Nationals did not have the best record in the National League this season, meaning they will not have to play the winner of the wild-card game in a five-game series (like they had to do in 2012 and 2014). This is a huge advantage, as the wild-card game winner comes into the series having already played a postseason game, something that can be a huge advantage in a sport where momentum is everything. Almost nobody I know is picking the Nationals to win the World Series, unlike in 2014, and even in 2012. Everyone is so quick to pick the Cubs, given their regular season dominance both at home and on the road, as well as a roster of battle-tested players, and arguably the best manager in the game in Joe Maddon. All the pressure in the world is on them, considering they haven’t won a title in 108 years (SI even put an updated version of the 1908 championship poster on their cover, replacing photos of the 1908 team with those of the current one).
My point is (and I apologize for taking this long to get to it); Unlike in playoffs past, where so much was expected of the Nationals, given their roster and top spot in the NL, this year feels different. Dusty Baker has so much more control of everything than Williams, and even Johnson did. Despite injuries to key pieces in Ramos and Strasburg, I don’t feel that their absences will be insurmountable. Tanner Roark will likely start Game 2 of the NLDS, which is absolutely fine considering how brilliant he was this season, and the platoon of Jose Lobaton (who is Gio Gonzalez’s preferred catcher) and Pedro Severino (who I think is really, really good) can make up for the absence of Wilson Ramos.
If the Nats lose in the NLDS (again), it’ll suck, but I don’t think it’ll leave fans, writers, and the players with the sense of “oh what could’ve been” like it did in 2014, and especially in 2012. If they win? Awesome! It’ll be the first playoff series win in franchise history, and will set up a matchup with either the Cubs (everyone’s pick to win), the Giants (the masters of the even-year), or the Mets (a hated division rival whose fans think because of one run to the World Series they’re suddenly the dominant force in the MLB). For the first time in franchise postseason history, the pressure really isn’t on the Nationals.
Game one against the Dodgers is at 5:38 (or 17:38 if you keep military time).
It’s gonna be lit. Go Nats