It is probably a little too soon for their players and fans, but I’m going to say it anyway: the Washington Nationals had a good year in 2016. DC managed to run away with the National League East, rightly separated themselves from an injured and less-talented Mets team, and earned home field advantage in their National League Divisional Series against the Dodgers. Let’s start our review with the NLDS and the unanticipated early end of the Nats’ playoff run, but not lose sight of all the good things that preceded it.
I don’t need to go too much into Game Five, as Nick Stellini did a superb job laying out how Dave Roberts pulled all the right strings, and how his players executed brilliantly. Back in game one, Max Scherzer put the Nationals in a 4-0 hole from which they never emerged. Maimed by the long ball, including a Corey Seager solo shot in the first inning and a Justin Turner two-run blast in the third, the Nationals played an okay game, but came up clearly short. They never could take advantage of the nine baserunners allowed by a not-at-his-best Clayton Kershaw, and were entirely shut down by the Dodgers bullpen through the final four innings.
Then, after winning games two and three, Washington fell behind early in game four when the Dodgers answered the Nationals’ run from the top of the first with a pair of their own in the bottom of the frame. Joe Ross did not pitch well, allowing four runs over 2.2 innings, and the bullpen failed to shut down LA’s offense, which chipped and scratched its way to an additional two runs and kept Washington from taking the lead.
Over the first two losses, Max Scherzer and Joe Ross combined for 8.2 innings and gave up eight earned runs. Both games were close despite the stumbles from DC starters. The bullpen performed well, allowing two runs over the remaining 9.1 innings, but the offense could not best the Dodgers. In game five, the script was different, as Scherzer pitched brilliantly through six innings. He gave up only a solo shot to Joc Pederson while striking out seven batters. Unfortunately for Washington, the bullpen could not keep it together in the hour-long seventh inning, when Dusty Baker ended up calling upon five relievers to get three outs. Kenley Jansen and Clayton Kershaw combined to close out out the last three innings, and the Nationals’ season was over.
At the end of the series, the Nationals lost three one-run games. This was about as evenly matched a series as any in recent memory, and if it were best-of-seven or best-of-nine, the result easily could have gone the other way.
Going into 2017 the Nationals are well-positioned to be the favorites in the National League East and hope they can get something – literally anything – out of Stephen Strasburg in the postseason. Strasburg could have been the difference in this series, but we’ll never really know.
On the offensive side, the Nationals have nearly their entire lineup returning, including the players that launched them to this season’s NL East pennant. Next year’s core looks nearly identical to this year, and a roster cemented by Bryce Harper, Trea Turner, and Max Scherzer should make Washington a force next season.
It may not help fans feel any better today, but this is surely not the last we will see of this team in the postseason. The future looks bright, even if today is gray.
Steven Martano is an Editor at Beyond the Box Score, a Contributing Prospect Writer for the Colorado Rockies at Purple Row, and a contributing writer for The Hardball Times. You can follow him on Twitter at @SMartano