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The Great Enigma of the Washington Nationals: What Happened? (Part 1 of 3)

Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post
Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post

Oh, baseball. You fickle beast.

The Washington Nationals, a franchise that rose from zero-to-hero in a span of just three years, are victims of a historic collapse. Such is the sport we love.

It didn’t occur in the last stretch of September, à la the 2011 Atlanta Braves, or in a favored playoff series (2004 New York Yankees). No — it was a long, grueling ordeal that began on Opening Day and will mercifully end upon the last pitch against the Mets in New York on October 4.

Owner Ted Lerner and General Manager Mike Rizzo spent last winter constructing a hell of a roster. It was one that challenged some of the best of all time, specifically in the pitching rotation.

100 wins and a World Series were the FLOOR for this team. If you didn’t pick to agree with those expectations, you were a severe outlier. 104 experts at ESPN, SI, FanGraphs & Baseball Prospectus made predictions, and out of those, 104 picked the Nats to win the NL East.

Much of the motivation for the unanimous praise was due to the signing of veteran pitcher Max Scherzer. Committing $20 million + per year to add to an already fantastic rotation was deemed an extra safety valve.

Now, after countless injuries, managerial mishaps, and the untimely declines of core veterans, even 85 wins and a second-place finish in the NL East is a stretch. Fans are left with the sole fact that their team is one of the more disappointing of all time.

In part one of this three part set, I’ll examine what in the world happened to the Nationals.

The Early Season 

Throughout spring training, all those from the outside looking in knew that injuries were the only thing that could derail this year. For once, wasn’t any “There’s Always Next Season.” This was the window to win it all.

The roster, built through every avenue one can (intelligent, patient drafting, win-later trades, and long-term contracts to solid free agent veterans), was the most complete in baseball at the time.

Except in the bullpen, it was a challenge to find holes. The infield included the underrated Yunel Escober and young stud Anthony Rendon. The outfield boasted an inevitable star in Bryce Harper, and solid veterans in Jayson Werth and Denard Span. The rotation was full of potential No. 1s in Strasburg, Zimmermann, Scherzer, Fister, and Gonzalez.

But then nature took its course. Werth, Rendon, and Span were all out for the entirety of March and for much of April due to a myriad of shoulder, foot, and abdomen problems respectively. Players, like Escobar shifting to third base in place of Rendon, had to be moved around to accommodate.

Unproven rookie Michael A. Taylor was given an Opening Day start in place of Span, and disappointing prospect Tyler Moore replaced Werth. Rapidly declining veteran Dan Uggla started at second base.

Despite the issues, the great shroud of incredible expectations and optimism seemed to hide them. The roster was so meticulously constructed, so deep and complete, that a couple early season injuries wouldn’t matter.

But they did. And the effect was immediate.

On that Opening Day against the Mets, the Nats held a 1-0 lead heading into the sixth inning. With two outs and a runner on first, Scherzer got Mets’ third baseman David Wright to hack at his first pitch, and he popped it up toward Dan Uggla at second. Ian Desmond, the shortstop, decided to join the play, racing towards the ball dangerously into the other side of second base.

Uggla had settled directly under the ball, but Desmond called him off — despite he being the one who had to catch the ball on a full sprint. Alas, Desmond dropped it. That was the first of his two errors that afternoon, both of which led to runs.

(Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)
(Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

The outcome was most likely due to Desmond’s unfamiliarity with Uggla. Had Rendon started, the play would probably have gone smoothly and the Nationals wouldn’t have wasted a fantastic performance from Scherzer.

Little did the 42,295 fans in attendance that day know — that broken play would be a perfect metaphor for the next six months.

Everything That Can Go Wrong, Will Go Wrong

After those spring training injuries first reared their ugly head, more players went down. Veterans Nate McLouth, Craig Stammen, and Reed Johnson to name a few. Including health issues with other players, and important pieces (like Denard Span) that had multiple long stints on the DL, this is what the Nats had to deal with:

Source: The Washington Post
Source: The Washington Post

Only for a couple games did the lineup look as it was projected before the season. While the reasons to bash manager Matt Williams could fill a novel, the amount of lineups he had to juggle was completely unprecedented.

It’s tough for any manager, let alone a second-year, to deal with this many injuries to the core.

Bryce Harper, Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann, and Max Scherzer were the only major pieces that didn’t see the DL for long periods of time. My gosh, imagine if Harper had cracked the top half of the above list; we would be looking at something of a rebuilding project in Washington.

At its worst, the lineup looked like something out of AAA: 30-year-old rookie Clint Robinson started at first, Dan Uggla at second, Tyler Moore in left, Michael Taylor in center, AA-call-up Joe Ross on the mound.

Even so, those core players did return to the field. There’s only one problem: most of them are on the wrong side of thirty, and after long stints on the DL, it was not expected that they would get their groove back immediately.

It ended up worse than anyone could have imagined. None of the core returned to form except Denard Span, who was lost for the season after he was back on the field for a few weeks.

Source: FiveThirtyEight
Source: FiveThirtyEight

It wasn’t the pitching: the rotation was top ten in baseball across most categories despite flying under expectations. It was the offense.

When Bryce Harper’s MVP stats are removed, the Nats are in the bottom half in baseball in most, if not all, offensive metrics. More than half of the total position player WAR is Harper’s. It’s simple: the good players were injured, and when they weren’t, they were terrible.

But what could Matt Williams do with the team he had? The bullpen was young, but skilled. The rotation was full of veterans who had been there, done that.

The perfect situation to explain Williams’ convoluted managing skills didn’t even occur in 2015. It was the seventh inning of Game 4 in last year’s NLDS against the Giants.

Left-hander Matt Thornton was in the game facing two left-handed Giants hitters; normal in today’s game. Thornton, the only leftie remaining in the bullpen, gave up a single to Gregor Blanco. That meant the dangerous Buster Posey was up next.

Posey is a potent clutch hitter in almost every situation. A manager needs to use all tools at his disposal to negate any advantage the hitter may have in such a crucial situation. But Williams does the exact opposite.

Posey has hit .333/.393/.578 against left-handed pitching in his career. That screams to put a right-hander in; Tyler Clippard, Aaron Barrett, and even Stephen Strasburg were available. But Thornton was left in. So Posey hit a single, enough to force Williams to call for Barrett. But Barrett walked a man and threw a wild pitch that scored the winning run.

The Results

(John McDonnell/The Washington Post)
(John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

Countless other mishaps similar to the above occurred this season, most of which cost the Nationals wins. It wasn’t just that; players disliked his entire management style. It was either leaving a starter in too long, taking them out too early, warming up relievers multiple times but never putting them in the game — the list goes on and on.

Williams refuses to make the right choices, and will rightfully be fired at season’s end. Combined with the terrible injury problems, and the Nats’ best players losing their marbles after returning, his managing was a large part of this team’s demise.

By the time the Nationals were in Washington on Labor Day to face the Mets, hope still lived. They had won five straight games to whittle what had been a 61/2-game lead for the Mets down to four.

But the Nats won just 9 of their next 22 games, essentially handing the division to Mets. Even with all the hardships that were thrown at them, the talent there should have been enough to qualify for a wild card spot. Instead, they’ll be watching the playoffs from the couch. They’ll see the Mets compete for the World Series, and they have no one to blame but themselves.

Whether by injuries, mismanagement, or historically bad luck, Washington let maybe their only foreseeable chance at a championship slip away in an utterly dissapointing breakdown.

Grant Thomas View All

18 year old Washington sports fan and Penn State freshman. I'll cover the MLB, NFL, and NBA.

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