November 9, 2018 [LINK / comment]

The Nationals in 2018: postmortem

From October 2nd through the 6th, the Washington Post had a series of five articles by Chelsea Janes and Jesse Dougherty seeking to explain what went wrong with the Nationals this year: "Dissecting the Nationals' Lost Season." Part I focused on the most obvious problem: the spate of injuries early in the season. Indeed, the number of days missed by their core players is just staggering: Daniel Murphy (62), Ryan Zimmerman (57), Adam Eaton (52), Matt Wieters (49), and Anthony Rendon (14). In addition, Howie Kendrick and newly acquired reliever Kelvin Herrera suffered season-ending injuries early on, and closer Sean Doolittle missed almost all of July and August.

Part II examined the role of the new manager, Dave Martinez, and his coaches. It was pointed out that the Nationals had a mere 18-24 record in games with a one-run margin, often ascribed to the players' failure to execute in clutch situations, but also resting on how the managers use their reserve players. Martinez acknowledged the need for better communication, the lack of which seems to be the origin of the Nats' midseason bullpen meltdown.

Part III scrutinized General Manager Mike Rizzo, who tacitly admitted he might have done some things differently in retrospect. Blessed with "the fourth-highest payroll in baseball" at the beginning of the season, they ended in fifth place, so to speak: $181 million. Talk about fantasy baseball! Rizzo's confidence in veteran starting pitchers Gio Gonzalez and Tanner Roark seems to have been misplaced, in retrospect. The timing of the Daniel Murphy and Matt Adam Trades (August 21, after the non-waiver-clearing deadline had passed) was puzzling to many people. It seemed Rizzo had suddenly reversed his firm declaration in late July that he had "faith in this team."

The failure of the Nats' starting pitching rotation was one of the biggest mysteries this year. Part of Tanner Roark's problem may have stemmed from not being used at all in the 2017 postseason, even though he excelled in helping the U.S. team win their first World Baseball Classic. Stephen Strasburg had repeated health troubles, which unfortunately is often the case for him.

Part V summed it up by pinning the blame on the players themselves for not rising to the occasion in critical situations. The team just seems to lack the competitive "edge" of a championship-bound team, and the loss of dynamic individuals such as Jayson Werth and Daniel Murphy hurt badly.

Finally, here is a sobering comparison made by Chris Rukan of the Washington Post on October 7: The Nationals are the only MLB team out of 20 altogether to have have had a regular-season winning percentage of at least .562 with at least four division titles over a seven-year period since 1969 (when divisional play began), without even winning a single divisional series. Thirteen of those teams won the World Series at least once, five others won a league pennant, and two others reached the league championship series. But the 2012-2018 Nationals? Nada. Ouch! frown

Comparative failed years

This year it was becoming clear by the latter part of June that the Nationals were in trouble, and every time they picked themselves up from a slump, they fell down once again. There was a glimmer of hope at the end of July, but a series of heartbreaking losses in mid-August almost sealed their fate. The decision to trade Daniel Murphy and Matt Adams in late August was a sign that Doomsday had come. Technically they were still alive until the very day I finally saw them play this year: September 21. After that, they were eliminated.

In 2015, the Nationals started off cold, then came surging back in late April and May. They were actually in first place from late June until early August, when they started going downhill once again. Repeated flubs and poor performances in late August led many to question Matt Williams's future as a manager with the Nationals, and indeed, his contract was not renewed. But the bad vibes on the team came to a head at the end of September , when Jonathan Papelbon tried to choke Bryce Harper in a dugout argument.

You could blame the Nationals' failure in 2013 on the proverbial Sports Illustrated Curse: a cover with Stephen Strasburg in the spring forecast that the Nats would win the World Series! Instead, they struggled just to stay above .500 for most of the season, and were in the losing column for most of July and early August: "The Washington Nationals' quest for a return trip to the postseason came to a premature and definitive end last night, as the Atlanta Braves beat them for a third consecutive game. With a lead of 15 1/2 games over the Nationals and just seven weeks left in the baseball season, the Braves are virtually assured of winning the NL East title." But then they staged a remarkable comeback, winning 14 of their last 19 games in late August. The last hopes for making it as a wild card team died in late September 22.

For more details on the successive years, see the Washington Nationals page.

Year Final place
NL East Division
Date of clinching
(or elimination)
Games ahead /
behind at end
2005 5th Sep -9
2006 5th ? Aug -26
2007 4th Aug -16
2008 5th ? Aug -32.5
2009 5th 15? Aug -34
2010 5th 1? Sep -28
2011 3rd 5? Sep -21.5
2012 1st 1 Oct +4
2013 2nd 24 Sep -10
2014 1st 16 Sep +17
2015 2nd 26 Sep -7
2016 1st 24 Sep +7
2017 1st 10 Sep +20
2018 2nd 21 Sep -9.5

"Harper's Bazaar" open for business

I generally try to ignore rumors, but the reported offer by the Washington Nationals to Bryce Harper of $300 million over ten years has been repeated so often that it must be pretty close to the truth. I tend to agree with Washington Post columnist Tom Boswell, who said that both sides made respectable opening moves, and everyone will stand to gain no matter where Harper ends up. His agent Scott Boras is reportedly seeking a $400 million deal, which is pretty crazy when you think about all the risks involved.

Adios, Ray Knight

Long-time MASN commentator Ray Knight will not return to the Nationals next season. He did not appear in any of the broadcasts in late September, prompting speculation about some kind of personal conflict. You could tell as the season drew to a close that he was getting angry about the way the team was being run, so perhaps that is at the root of it. In October 2017, he was arrested for assault-and-battery, suggesting problems with "anger management." Though lacking in eloquence, I always enjoyed his colorful presence and his solid insights on how baseball should be played, during the pre-game and post-game segments on MASN with Johnny Holliday. It will be tough to fill his shoes. He played about a dozen years in the majors, most notably with the New York Mets (including their 1986 World Championship year) and the Cincinnati Reds. See the Washington Post.

Johnny Holliday, Ray Knight

Johnny Holliday and Ray Knight doing the Nats Xtra postgame show on September 28, 2014, when Jordan Zimmermann threw the first-ever no-hitter for the Nationals.

RFK Stadium photos

I recently scanned a batch of old photos of RFK Stadium that I took at a Nationals-Mets game on September 30, 2006, including the rather dramatic one below. I posted all of them on that page, along with a number of older photos that are now viewable in large size for the first time. Other photos of lesser signficance are now lumped together under the "legacy" category, and you toggle back and forth between the "jumbo" and "legacy" photos. Almost all of the captions have been deleted, as most of the photos are self-explanatory. You just click and browse at random, with the photo links arranged in chronological order. All this is part of a long-term upgrade of my stadium pages.

RFK Stadium 30Sep2006 grandstand BHP

RFK Stadium grandstand, September 30, 2006.