By Mike Frandsen
The Washington Nationals’ 2012 season was a season of firsts. The Nats had their first winning record since they began play in D.C. in 2005, and they played the first playoff series in Washington in 79 years.
The Nationals took D.C. fans through a roller coaster of emotions in the National League Division Series. Jayson Werth’s dramatic walk-off home run in Game 4 was the shot heard around the District, Maryland, and Virginia. Then the Nats took the fans to the brink of euphoria again, only to leave them bitterly devastated. Going up 6-0 in Game 5, and finally losing 9-7 after being one strike away from defeating the St. Louis Cardinals, was one of the biggest choke jobs in baseball history.
It was the biggest comeback ever in a winner-take-all playoff game.
In time, the players will appreciate the team’s 98-win season and NL East Division title. But the loss will sting badly, and should for a while.
In fact, athletes often say they remember the losses more than the wins. Nats fans can only hope that the ordeal makes the Nats mentally stronger, rather than sets them on a course of losing under pressure.
The runs almost came too easily in the first three innings of Game 5. In the first inning, Werth doubled, Bryce Harper tripled, and Ryan Zimmerman hit a home run. In the third inning, Harper homered, Zimmerman doubled, and Michael Morse hit a home run to make it 6-0. After being absent for much of the series, the top of the order suddenly had more hits than Taylor Swift.
Don’t ever believe anything that is too good to be true. This was. If it had happened a couple of innings later, the Nats probably would have won. But they couldn’t handle the early success. Pitchers got tentative, while hitters let up. It’s human nature to relax when you get an early lead. But if there’s anything the Nats can take away from Game 5 it’s that it was a team loss. Everyone contributed.
After that third inning, the Nats only scored one run, and only pitched one shutout inning. The Nats didn’t keep the pressure on the Cardinals; they played tentatively.
The Nats learned that life isn’t fair, sometimes the best teams don’t win, and paradoxically, when you want it so badly, it often becomes harder to attain. That’s why the final outs are always the hardest.
It was a tough lesson to learn, but you can bet that next time the Nats won’t play not to lose.
There should be plenty of next times for Washington, with a young core of stars including Harper, Stephen Strasburg, and Ryan Zimmerman. Harper, not quite 20, had one of the best seasons ever for a teenager. The rookie phenom hit .270 with 22 homers and 59 RBI after being called up in April. Harper also hit 26 doubles, nine triples, and stole 18 bases. He also displayed a strong arm, base running acumen, and a surprising level of maturity.
Strasburg was brilliant in 2012, with a record of 15-6, an ERA of 3.13, and an incredible 197 strikeouts in 159 innings. His stuff was as good as ever, though he slowed down a bit toward the end of the year. The Strasburg shutdown was controversial across the country, but not so much in D.C. Fans here are smart enough to understand that the team needs Strasburg for the next decade.
Virginia’s own Zimmerman, who has played for the Nats since their inception in 2005, had another excellent season with 25 homers and 95 RBI. His throws to first were often adventures, but he needed cortisone shots just to get through the year. Adam LaRoche was a pleasant surprise with 33 homers and 100 RBI. And Michael Morse hit for power too with 18 home runs in 102 games.
After missing half the season with an injured wrist, Werth moved to leadoff and hit .300. In fact, the Nats had the best record in the majors despite losing Werth, Morse, catcher Wilson Ramos, and closer Drew Storen for much of the season.
The defense was excellent, and the middle infielders hit for surprising power. Ian Desmond hit 25 round trippers, while Danny Espinosa smashed 17. The starting rotation of Gio Gonzalez (21 wins), Jordan Zimmermann (2.91 ERA), Edwin Jackson and Ross Detwiler led a pitching staff that had the second lowest ERA (3.33) in the majors. Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen were part of a strong Nats bullpen.
The Nats’ excellent starting rotation proved to be human in the playoffs, however. The staff was deep, but there was no Jack Morris, Curt Schilling, or Chris Carpenter to carry the load in the postseason, although Gonzalez had a Cy Young-type regular season. Perhaps Strasburg will become that workhorse who dominates in the playoffs.
The team will have to decide whether to resign LaRoche and Jackson. LaRoche should be back, however, Jackson will be expendable with the return of Strasburg.
The future looks bright for the Nats, with the only regulars over 30 being LaRoche and Werth. The team rebounded from 100-loss seasons in 2008 and 2009. The fan interest in the team also peaked in 2012, with attendance at its highest since the team’s inaugural season of 2005, and TV ratings and merchandise sales up considerably over a year ago.
Despite the Nats’ youth and talent, there are no guarantees. The Seattle Mariners won 116 games in 2001 but haven’t been back to the playoffs since. On the other hand, the Cardinals made the playoffs five times from 2000 to 2005 and finally won the World Series in 2006. Then they won it again in 2011 after making the playoffs in 2009.
It was a sublime season for the 2012 Washington Nationals, one that came crashing to an abrupt halt in October. Now that D.C. fans have had a taste of playoff baseball, they can only hope that this year was just the beginning.
Mike Frandsen is a freelance writer covering all things Redskins. His work can be found on Examiner.com.