A Look Back at the Nationals 2013

This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.     

                                                                --T.S. Eliot The Hollow Men

 

The stadium drew silent. The joy and exuberance that was ready to burst forth slowly died as the ball off of Pete Kozma's bat found grass. From being one strike away from the NLCS to facing elimination in a span of less than three minutes. This was how the 2012 Washington Nationals season ended. With a tremendous crash. It was all over so suddenly. The end of 2012 was a bang. One that sent aftershocks through 2013. It was something we always heard early in the season. The constant comparisons to 2012, and how this went that way then and wasn't now. It was as if the Nationals and their fans weren't ready to give up on a season that had already passed.  

The failures of Drew Storen in the ninth led the Nationals to seek bullpen help from the biggest name on the market, and while a 3.11 ERA from a relief pitcher isn't bad, a 6.9 K/9 is. Soriano wasn't the pitcher he was thought to be and not one worth a two year $28 million contract, but he isn't the reason things turned out the way they did. The real after effect of 2012 was the wait for everyone to play like it was 2012 again, mainly the bench bats. Chad Tracy, Steve Lombardozzi, Tyler Moore, Roger Bernadina, and Kurt Suzuki all had good seasons with the Nationals in 2012 and were a big part of them winning 98 games and the division, but as the injuries piled up late in April and into May their slow start became something the Nationals shouldn't have waited to get back to 2012 levels.  

Eventually Tyler Moore, Steve Lombardozzi, and Chad Tracy would get back to acceptable bench level posting .834, .748, and .718 OPS's respectively, but by then it was too little too late. The Nats needed that production earlier in the season. They needed it when they didn't have Harper, Werth, Zimmerman, and Ramos. They needed it before they got it and maybe the paralysis in making a move came from the belief that 2012 would return at any moment or it is that Mike Rizzo is a patient man and he ended up being correct. Most of the bench performed as expected in the second half. The only issue being they still played the first half and struggled when needed most.  

That will be one of the biggest lingering questions from 2013. Could more have been done? Was there a fix out there when the starting line-up was decimated by injuries? It is a question that cannot be answered. It is rare to see a trade that much before the trading deadline and maybe a waiver wire pick up or call-up from Syracuse would have helped, but because nothing was done we can only speculate the answer. That period of time isn't what did in the Nationals. They were three games under .500 in the span from Zimmerman hitting the DL until Werth returned and one game over from that point until Harper returned. It is what happened a week after Harper returned that would doom the season.   

With everyone healthy and in the line-up together and the team already playing well an uptick was expected. The All-Star Break was approaching and the Nationals were going to play the bottom of their division in the Phillies and Marlins heading into the break. The games were on the road, but that shouldn't have mattered. Then they completely forgot how to score averaging 2.7 runs a game, the bullpen blew saves, starters were staked to early leads and completely imploded. Everything that could go wrong did go wrong, and yet the Nationals entered the break one game over .500 and not dead yet.   

It was a tough set of games to start the second half against the Dodgers and Pirates, but they were seven games at home, and the Nationals were rested, healthy, and ready, but they couldn't get anything going. They lost two close games to the Dodgers and then were blown out. Then against the Pirates they slipped even further losing a one run game then by four and finally by two before winning the series finale on a walk-off Bryce Harper homer. It was a disappointing start to the second half and now the Nationals were five games under .500. Take that entire stretch and make the Nationals 7-7 instead of 3-11. That gives them 90 wins, tied with the Reds for the second Wild Card, not in the playoffs, but not dead yet.   

That is a stretch that baffles the mind. Everyone was healthy, the Nats were playing bad teams on the road, and good teams at home, and going .500 through that stretch should have been doable, but it isn't what happened. After that the Nationals hit their stride. They finished July 3-3 and took off in August going 34-20 in the final two months of the regular season. A .630 pace in those final months should be enough to accomplish something, but the Nationals had fallen too far behind. Not even a 102 win pace was enough to get them to the post-season. It is disappointing but it demonstrated how they can play when healthy and together.   

The issues in July are an unknown. They couldn't score runs, couldn't prevent runs from being scored, and the bullpen couldn't hold the lead. Those are all facts, not reasons. The reasons behind those facts are the mystery. Perhaps players coming off the DL were still searching for their timing or the issues really were with the hitting coach or it is a small sample size and the Nationals simply got baseballed or it could be that the manager kept going to struggling players trying to work them out of a funk in crucial moments.  

Throughout the season there was a belief that the Nationals would hit their stride. That they would rediscover the 2012 magic, and eventually they did, but not before they fell too far behind, and so the season ended with Davey Johnson honored in Arizona and then bringing in Ryan Mattheus to blow a one run lead to the Diamondbacks who would end up winning by one run. It was a common theme for the Nationals. Good starting pitching, not a lot of offense, and the bullpen unable to shut the door. Change either of the last two things and the season goes much differently. It was a finally game that didn't matter. No one will curse the name of A.J. Pollock for driving in the go ahead run. He is no Pete Kozma. The Nats were not eliminated from the season by the Diamondbacks as they were the Cardinals in 2013. Time was the Nationals undoing. They ran out of it, and because of that the season ended in a whimper. 

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