Nationals thrive for 162 games, but not in October
WASHINGTON (AP) — For the second time in three years, the Washington Nationals won the most games in the NL — and then quickly exited from the playoffs.
Now comes an offseason of questions about manager Matt Williams’ decisions and a handful of key roster choices, including what to do about Ryan Zimmerman, whether to sign Jordan Zimmermann and Ian Desmond to long-term deals, and how to upgrade an offense that fell flat in October.
“The window is not closed,” Desmond said after the Nationals’ season ended Tuesday night with a 3-2 loss to the San Francisco Giants in Game 4 of their NL Division Series, “but it is closing.”
At 96-66 under rookie skipper Williams, Washington finished first in the NL East by 17 games and had the best record in the league. Its pitching staff led the majors with a 3.03 ERA, as Zimmermann, who threw a no-hitter in the regular-season finale, teamed with Stephen Strasburg, Doug Fister, Gio Gonzalez and Tanner Roark to form as formidable rotation. The lineup lacked superstar numbers, but it managed to finish third in the NL in runs.
Then came the postseason.
Just like in 2012, when it won 98 games, a top-seeded Nationals club lost to a wild-card opponent in the NLDS.
The pitching was fine — Washington and San Francisco each scored nine runs in the series — although Williams’ use of his relievers will provide fodder for months’ worth of talk-radio segments.
Should he have lifted Zimmermann with two outs in the ninth in Game 2? Should he have gone through Game 4 without ever using Tyler Clippard, Drew Storen, Craig Stammen or an available Strasburg? Should he have picked one of those pitchers for the pivotal seventh inning, when the Giants took the lead for good, instead of Matt Thornton and rookie Aaron Barrett, whose wild pitch let the go-ahead run score?
“Those are our seventh-inning guys,” Williams said. “That’s how we set this up.”
The biggest problem of all in the playoffs, though, was the lack of runs.
The only batters who produced against the Giants were left fielder Bryce Harper and Anthony Rendon, who replaced Zimmerman as the team’s third baseman in 2014. Rendon batted .400 in the NLDS. Harper hit .368 with three homers and four RBIs, which might raise an additional second-guess: Why was he batting sixth?
The No. 3-4 hitters, right fielder Jayson Werth and 34-year-old first baseman Adam LaRoche, were particularly off. They went a combined 2 for 35 (a .057 average) with a pair of singles and nine strikeouts.
They were hardly alone, though.
The No. 1, 5 and 7 hitters — center fielder Denard Span, shortstop Desmond and catcher Wilson Ramos — were 7 for 54 (.130) with 15 strikeouts, zero extra-base hits and zero RBIs.
“It’s just frustrating to get to this point and not play to our capabilities,” Span said. “This will stick with me the whole offseason.”
When the Nationals eventually gather in Florida for spring training in February, the focus will be squarely on why a club so successful in the regular season hasn’t been able to follow that up in the postseason.
LaRoche might be gone, perhaps replaced at first base by Zimmerman. Second baseman Asdrubal Cabrera, a trade-deadline pickup, can become a free agent, and deposed closer Rafael Soriano could be gone, too. As things stand now, the Nationals have a contract option to keep Span for next season, while Zimmermann and Desmond can become free agents after the 2015 season.
“We’re a good team and we had a goal in mind,” reliever Jerry Blevins said. “This wasn’t it.”
Freelance writer Rick Eymer in San Francisco contributed to this report.
Follow Howard Fendrich on Twitter at http://twitter.com/HowardFendrich