A year ago this morning, the Nats were still reveling in the National League East title they had clinched the previous night. A team that hadn’t had a winning record since it still called Montreal home nine years earlier was about to finish with a major league-best 98 victories.
Although Washington, unlike fellow NL playoff qualifiers St. Louis (the defending World Series champion), San Francisco (the 2010 champion) and Cincinnati (second appearance in three years) didn’t have any postseason experience, manager Davey Johnson’s team was given a solid chance of winning it all.
Of course, the Nats blew a 6-0 lead at home in the decisive Game 5 of the NL Division Series and lost 9-7 to the Cardinals, but they still entered 2013 with unbridled optimism. Delicate ace Stephen Strasburg was healthy and primed for his first full season. Proven closer Rafael Soriano and speedy center fielder Denard Span had come aboard and veteran right hander Dan Haren was going to be an able replacement for departed fifth starter Edwin Jackson.
No wonder that Johnson, the 70-year old owner of two championship rings as a player and another as a manager, proclaimed “World Series or Bust” as the motto for his final season.
Bust will be how Washington’s 2013 baseball season is remembered. The Nats won 86 games – a franchise-high since 1996 (other than 2012) and tied for the most by a team in the Nation’s Capital since 1945 (other than 2012). A 29-11 tear through Sept. 20 was exciting, but it was still a summer of heartache in D.C. as the Nats finished 10 games behind Atlanta in the NL East and four games out of the playoffs.
It’s all about expectations.
When the expansion Senators rocketed from 65 victories in 1968 to 86 under Manager of the Year Ted Williams in 1969, the town was captivated even though Washington finished 23 games behind Baltimore and second baseman Johnson in the American League East.
If the Nats had gone 86-76 last year, it would have been seen as the next sign of steady progress from 59 victories in 2009 to 69 in 2010 to 80 in 2011. But losing 12 more games than they did last year – only the defending champion Giants and the Chicago White Sox endured bigger plunges – was a huge disappointment.
Washington’s pitching staff sunk from the NL’s best with a 3.33 earned run average to No. 6 at 3.59. Left hander Gio Gonzalez, third in the Cy Young voting in his D.C. debut in 2012, slipped noticeably as did oft-injured No. 4 starter Ross Detwiler and reliever Drew Storen, the Game 5 goat. Soriano wasn’t as reliable as he had been and Haren was so lousy that he won’t return. Jordan Zimmermann rose to 19 victories, tied for the NL high, but his ERA also rose from 2.94 to 3.25. Only eighth inning king Tyler Clippard truly had a fine season on the mound.
The Nats also fell off on defense, plummeting from second in the league to 13th in fielding percentage while making 13 more errors, many by frustrated former Gold Glove third baseman Ryan Zimmerman
A mid-season switch in hitting coaches helped forge a turnaround at the plate, but Washington’s collective batting average still dropped from .261 to .251, its homers from 194 to 161 and its runs from 731 to 656. First baseman Adam LaRoche, who turns 34 next month, showed his age, sinking from .271 with 33 homers and 100 RBI to .237/20/62. However, right fielder Jayson Werth had a renaissance at 34, rising from an injury-hampered .300/5/31 to a .318/25/82 campaign that should garner the clubhouse leader some MVP votes.
Rookie second baseman Anthony Rendon hit for a higher average but less power than demoted predecessor Danny Espinosa. Span added defense and speed, but even his NL-best 29-game hitting streak left him offensively well short of slugger Michael Morse, whose outfield spot he inherited. Zimmerman and shortstop Ian Desmond slipped a little at the plate while catcher Wilson Ramos (healthy again) and left field Bryce Harper did the opposite.
Ultimately, Harper and Strasburg symbolized what happened to the Nats in 2013.
Harper, the top overall pick in the 2010 draft, was incandescent as the 19-year-old NL Rookie of the Year in 2012, exciting fans with the strength of his bat and his arm and his all-out hustle on the bases, most notably when he stole home after being purposely plunked by Philadelphia’s Cole Hamels.
Strasburg, the top overall pick in 2009 who was electrifying during his 2010 debut before it was cut short by Tommy John surgery that sidelined him for most of 2011, ranked among the leader leaders in most categories last season.
This year, Harper ran into outfield walls in April and again in May and never took the next step forward to greatness. Strasburg’s ERA dropped but his record tanked as he often pouted when his defense faltered behind him or when he received little offensive support.
When the Nats gather again for spring training in Viera, Fla., they’ll have a new manager but probably no new key pieces other than a replacement for Haren and maybe for LaRoche. The expectations won’t be as sky-high as they were this year, but their goals should remain the same. This team has everything it needs to win and win big.
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last three Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March 2011.