Another year, and another disappointment in the playoffs for the Washington Nationals.
Dating back to their days as the Montreal Expos, the Washington Nationals have always been a Major League Baseball franchise that has wilted under pressure. The Expos became an MLB franchise in 1969 and in their first decade of existence, they were unable to secure a winning season. But that would change for the Expos in 1979; however they would lose a late season series to the Pittsburgh Pirates that would cost them a chance to win the National League East. In 1981, the Expos held a 2-1 series lead over the Los Angeles Dodgers in the National League Championship Series, but they would lose the series in five games. In 1993, the Expos would win 94 games, but they finished in second place in the NL East as they were three games behind the Philadelphia Phillies. In 1994, the Expos would have the best record in MLB when the baseball strike put an end to the season. The Expos would return as a contender in 1996, but they finished two games behind the Dodgers for the NL’s Wild Card. A lack of revenue would hinder the Expos during the remainder of their time in Montreal which resulted in them relocating to Washington D.C. in 2005.
In their first year in the Nation’s Capitol, the Nationals found themselves in first place in the National League East until a late season swan dive saw them finish with a record of 81-81. After six consecutive losing seasons from 2006-2011, the Nats would win 98 games in 2012 for their first NL East Title since 1981. But in the National League Division Series, the Nationals would blow a 2-1 series lead before losing at home in the decisive Game 5 to the St. Louis Cardinals after jumping out to a 6-0 lead. Last year the Nats would once again win the NL East, but they would succumb to the San Francisco Giants in four games in the NLDS.
This year the Nationals were once again expected to win the National League East as they were the only team in the division to finish 2014 with a winning record which was further solidified this past off-season when they signed starting pitcher Max Scherzer who won the 2014 American League Cy Young Award as a member of the Detroit Tigers.
But whereas the Nationals were expected to run away with the National League East this year, they’ve never been able to take their game to another level. Washington’s high water mark this season was on July 17 when they were 48-39 and they had a chance to put a strangle hold on the division in late July which they failed to do.
The Nationals went to Citi Field in Flushing, Queens for a three-game series against the New York Mets that began on July 31. The Nats came into the series with a three-game lead over the Mets for first place in the National League East. And instead of Washington being able to put a stamp on their second consecutive division title, they were swept by New York which gave them all of the momentum. Since that series the Nationals have been spiraling downwards, but even with that they had a chance at redemption last week when they hosted the Mets. The Mets came to D.C. with a four-game lead as they had seen the Nats make up 2.5 games on them in just a matter of days. But in the three-game series, the Nationals bullpen would be their undoing as they blew a lead in each game of the series which was highlighted by surrendering a 7-1 lead on Tuesday night en route to losing the game 8-7. The Nationals would once again get swept by the Mets who left D.C. with a seven-game lead in the division as their first NL East Title since 2006 appears to now be a reality. And whereas the Nats had a chance to be just one game behind the Mets and the end of this critical series, they are now 9.5 behind New York with a regular-season finale between these two teams becoming as obsolete a VHS player.
All season long the Nationals have lacked a sense of urgency which is why they will more than likely be watching the playoffs from home next month in spite of the fact that they have one of the more talented teams in Major League Baseball this year. Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper is the front runner to be named as the National League MVP as he is batting .333 with 36 home runs and 85 runs batted in. But Harper can only do some much if he comes to the plate and there is nobody on base which can also be said about him being on the base paths when his teammates are unable to drive him in. And even though Harper has hit 36 home runs, the second closest player to him in that category on the Nationals roster is shortstop Ian Desmond with just 17. This year the Nats are fourth in the NL in on-base percentage (.323) and third in runs scored (616), but they’ve had a big problem as far a getting the big hits in clutch situations.
Hands down Scherzer has been the ace of Washington’s pitching staff this year, but the Nationals offense hasn’t always been able to score runs for him when he is on the mound. This season with the Nats, Scherzer has an earned run average of 3.03 with three complete games as one of those efforts resulted in no-hitter. But with all of that, Scherzer’s record this year is just 11-11 as his teammates have failed to support him. Behind Scherzer in the Nationals starting rotation, there has been nothing but inconsistency. After winning 21 games for the Nationals in 2012, starting pitcher Gio Gonzalez has gone 31-25 since then as you simply never know how he will perform when he takes the mound. After being the first overall pick of the 2009 Major League Baseball Draft, starting pitcher Stephen Strasburg has been unable to stay healthy as he has spent as much time on the disabled list as he has on the active roster for a pitching staff that was expected to be this team’s strength.
Nationals relief pitcher Drew Storen began this year by saving 29 games in 31 opportunities. But just prior to the Major League Baseball trade deadline, Nats general manager Mike Rizzo acquired relief pitcher Jonathan Papelbon from the Phillies. The move annoyed Storen as he has now been demoted to being the setup guy for Papelbon and since then he has had a problem throwing strikes and he when he does find the plate, it turns into batting practice for the opposition. Storen didn’t make the situation any better last week when he was lost for the season after injuring his hand in frustration after a poor outing against the Mets.
Fairly or unfairly, the Nationals struggles this year will fall at the feet of their manager Matt Williams who more than likely will not be back in 2016. Williams is in his second year with the Nats, but he has never been able to get his team to play up to their level of expectations which doesn’t bode well for him. The Nationals were on cruise control this year until they got punched in the mouth by the Mets. And the more that the Nats haven’t fought back is the more that Mets have continued to deliver body blows. The off-season appears to be getting started earlier than expected for the Nationals who might as well begin preparing for spring training in 2016 as they’ve become Major League Baseball’s poster boys for under achieving.