September 15, 2019

A season ends: Nationals eliminated, Williams ridiculed in media

The New York Mets made official what we’ve known around here for the better part of two months: the Washington Nationals aren’t going to the playoffs.

The Nats were doomed by starting the month of August in a 4-13 slump — a period where they went from three games up in the division to 4 1/2 games back. They’ve never recovered, as a five-game losing streak — three to these very Mets — early in September further reinforced the idea that the Nats just didn’t have “it” this year.The Nats were leading the division with backups and spare parts until the first of August. When the walking wounded returned, those first few weeks were akin to spring training for them. They all warmed up and eventually contributed, but it was way too late. The damage of those three weeks was too much to overcome.

Three seasons ago, when the Nats brazenly shut down Stephen Strasburg during the stretch run, we were promised multiple trips to the playoffs. This year was supposed to be when the Nats realized the benefits of cutting Strasburg’s season short that year.

Strasburg was scintillating on Saturday again, limiting a barely AAAA-level Phillies squad to one run on three hits and a walk, with 13 strikeouts, over eight innings. Since he returned form the disabled list the second time this season, Strasburg is 9-2 in 12 starts with a 1.89 ERA and .173/.206/.309 line against. That’s as good as any pitcher in the league. When truly healthy, he’s still one of the top half-dozen starters in the game.

Unfortunately, there just wasn’t enough around him and unquestionable N.L. MVP Bryce Harper to fulfill the Nats destiny as perennial playoff contender and preseason World Series favorite.

It got worse for the Nationals off the field on Saturday. Moments before the Mets clinched the N.L. East officially, The Washington Post’s Barry Svrluga posted an article entitled “Manager Matt Williams lost the clubhouse; will he lose his job“. In that piece, no fewer than four Nats players — anonymously, of course — complained about the atmosphere around the team. The most damning came near the end of the piece:

Now, several Nationals players believe Williams won’t be able to grow even if the club brings him back for 2016. And this isn’t just one or two malcontents. These opinions span positions and experience. “It’s a terrible environment,” one player said. “And the amazing part is everybody feels that way.”

It’s a grim statement on the condition surrounding the team, and a frank look inside a clubhouse that has been fractured by lack of communication, inflexibility and general tone-deafness of its field manager.

That’s certainly not to let the players off the hook. By design, the Nats came into this season with four key contributors entering “walk years,” their final season before hitting free agency. Players will tell you it’s not a distraction, but don’t believe them. This is their livelihood, and playing without a contract has a huge impact on players. Some thrive, some wilt. It’s not a coincidence that Ian Desmond, Jordan Zimmermann, Doug Fister and Denard Span all struggled to varying degrees.

Desmond’s average was .204 on July 19. A mid-summer “hot” streak got him as high as .239, but he’s gone 10 of 57 in his last 15 games (.175/.234/.246) to torpedo any lingering goodwill. Span has been limited to 61 games as a result of rushing back from two off-season abdominal surgeries, Fister was removed from the rotation due to complete ineffectiveness and barely pitched since, and Zimmermann was clobbered in his final home game Friday night to raise his ERA to 3.68 — his highest full-season ERA of his career.

How much did the lingering contract status affect these players? They’ll never admit it, but the stats don’t lie.

The season is mercifully over. There will be an incredible amount of turnover before next season for a team that entered this season as prohibitive World Series favorites. There will be plenty of epitaphs written and opinions expressed of how to rectify the situation.

The bottom line is that another year of Strasburg and Harper’s prime has been wasted as they both inch closer to free agency themselves, and that has to be the most chilling thought of all for Nats fans.

About Dave Nichols

Dave Nichols is Editor-in-Chief of District Sports Page. He is credentialed to cover the Washington Nationals, Capitals, Wizards and Mystics. Dave also covers national college football and basketball and Major League Soccer for Associated Press and is a copy editor for the Spokesman-Review newspaper in Spokane, WA. He spent four years in radio covering the Baltimore Orioles, Washington Redskins and the University of Maryland football and basketball teams. Dave is a life-long D.C. sports fan and attended his first pro game in 1974 — the Caps’ second game in existence. You can follow him on Twitter @DaveNicholsDSP

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  1. […] wrote in my piece yesterday the Nats wasted another year of Harper and Stephen Strasburg in their primes. How they handle this […]

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