Nationals’ slide dropped Washington from contenders to also-rans this season
For the Washington Nationals, this season began with World Series expectations, a golf-chipping contest and a group of live camels brought into spring training by a rookie manager looking to poke a little fun at the team’s angst about “getting over the hump” in the playoffs.
As it turned out, the worries about coming up short in the postseason were misplaced.
Once dependable hitters went cold, a starting rotation collapsed and injured stars went missing for weeks. Instead of competing for a title, the Nationals missed the playoffs entirely and barely finished above .500.
It was a stunning fall for a team that had won the National League East by a combined 28 games the previous two seasons.
The club outscored its opponents by about 100 runs and tallied 10 runs or more 15 times, including Saturday’s 12-2 win at Colorado. But the Nationals were 4-10 in games that went into extra innings and 18-24 in one-run games. The bullpen allowed 81 homers, the second worst in the league, and the offense was blanked in 15 games.
One veteran scout who follows the team said he had misgivings in March about the Nationals’ decision to hand the team over to Dave Martinez, an experienced bench coach who had never managed at the major league level.
“The one caveat I was most concerned about was an experienced team ... bringing in an inexperienced manager,” the scout said. “You had an inexperienced man coming in. They tried that once before with Matt Williams (in 2014-15) and it didn’t work.”
Williams was the manager of the year in the National League in 2014 when the Nationals won the division. But he was let go after a horrid 2015, when he lost the clubhouse, according to former National Jayson Werth, who was inducted into the club’s Ring of Honor this season.
While many fans and even some players questioned Martinez and his handling of the bullpen, others contend the team’s mediocre season could just as easily be blamed on injuries, underperforming players, poor personnel decisions and off-the-field distractions, including the summer-long, non-stop speculation over the future of soon-to-be-free-agent Bryce Harper.
In truth, it was all of the above that led to one of the most disappointing seasons since the Nationals moved to Washington in time for the 2005 campaign.
“I was hurt. (Ryan) Zimmerman was hurt. (Stephen) Strasburg was hurt. We had a lot of guys banged up,” Nationals outfielder Adam Eaton told 106.7 The Fan in a candid interview late in the season. “We never really got it together. We could never get on the same page.”
Eaton was one of several regulars who spent time on the disabled list, including Zimmerman, Strasburg, catcher Matt Wieters, second baseman Daniel Murphy (traded to the Cubs in August), third baseman Anthony Rendon, and closer Sean Doolittle.
“We are human,” Eaton added. “I guess that is the only way to put it.”
The bullpen was a weakness at times. But when that got straightened out, the normally reliable starting pitchers faltered. Starter Tanner Roark lost 15 games while durable but erratic lefty Gio Gonzalez was traded to Milwaukee.
Washington allowed 15 homers on 0-2 counts, which was the most in the majors.
“The big thing for me was the handling of the bullpen,” the scout said. “I told people the bullpen would be worn out before July came. (Martinez) would use guys three or four days in a row. You can’t do that.”
The Nationals could never string together a long winning streak to challenge the Atlanta Braves in the National League East.
General manager Mike Rizzo traded relievers Brandon Kintzler and Shawn Kelley in late July, then dealt Murphy, first baseman Matt Adams and Gonzalez in August to playoff contenders.
How did Eaton feel about the trades of Adams and Murphy, which was a symbolic white flag?
“It is our fault; that is my natural reaction,” Eaton said. “If you don’t like it play better. Be better, period. It is really that simple.”