In case you missed my MASN Nationals Buzz guest blog post this week, I wrote about some of the good things the Nationals have accomplished in the past few years, even after a disappointing 2015 season and an ugly finale at Nats Park.
It’s been a weird couple of days to be a Nationals fan. I am used to being excited after a walk-off win, or sad after a big loss. But the past couple of days I have felt a feeling that I have never felt before as a Nationals fan – embarrassment. I was embarrassed by the way Jonathan Papelbon bullied the best player on the team and best player in baseball, Bryce Harper. I was embarrassed that the Nationals coaching staff let Papelbon play after the attack. I was embarrassed all around that no one on the team seemed to care about the things that made fans feel such outrage. This was the worst display of bad sportsmanship on the Nationals since I started following the team. Worse than Nyjer Morgan’s hissy fit when he threw his glove and left a live ball sitting in the outfield. This involved one teammate fighting with another over something meaningless, and then management doing very little to make it right. All on Fan Appreciation Day! I never want to see this happen again.
To top it all off, the Mets clinched the National League East on Saturday, and the once-admired Nationals officially are out of the playoffs when the season ends on Sunday. It’s been an up-and-down (but mostly down) year for the Nationals, capped off by the lowest incident for fan morale that I can remember. But it is still worth acknowledging how far the team has come in 10 years from their inaugural season in D.C. The team made a huge transformation and became a national story in just a couple of years. They have gone from a bunch of Expos players whose names no one really remembers to a team featuring a rotation with the likes of Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann. We get to cheer for Harper, the 2012 Rookie of the Year and likely 2015 National League Most Valuable Player.
Since 2012, the Nationals went from a weak team that the Phillies or Braves liked to play to harden their lead in the division to a team that is always fighting to play in the postseason. It used to be that Phillies fans outnumbered the small number of Nats fans at the ballpark, but now Nats Parks hosts 2.6 million fans a year. So even though this year fell well below expectations, and things definitely will need to improve in the offseason to win back fan support, it is worth taking a look at how well the Nationals have done in the past few years and some accomplishments from this year.
When the second Washington Senators left town to go to Arlington, Texas, after the 1971 season, there was vaguely any baseball being played in the Washington, D.C., area. In fact, the Redskins were the only major professional sports team in Washington for two whole years until the Bullets (now Wizards) and the Capitals arrived. More than 30 years passed without Washington having its own professional baseball team. And then, just a month after I was born, the announcement was made: after considering northern Virginia, Washington, Portland, Oregon, Las Vegas, Norfolk and Monterrey, Mexico, Major League Baseball decided that the nation’s capital was worthy enough for their own baseball team.
I’ve written on MattsBats.com about how I became such a huge baseball fan. I think there are a lot of kids like me who have fallen in love with baseball, since my generation is the first one to have a hometown major league team in 33 years. I like the Nats; my siblings like the Nats; my siblings’ friends like the Nats. We have players like Ryan Zimmerman, Jayson Werth, Harper and Scherzer, who the team signed for long-term deals, who we will be able to root for all through our childhood. It’s great that little kids are able to actually go to a Nationals game in their hometown, and not just watch it on TV or listen on the radio. I love seeing a kid get a foul ball and holding it up as their most prized possession, because that is how I became a fan. At the same time, the Papelbon incident from Sunday is a good lesson that all of that positive energy can dry up very quickly. No one wants to see the villain beat up the superhero. The Nationals need to make sure they play baseball well on the field, but also that their roster includes players that fans want to root for, not against.
Turning back to baseball, even though the Nationals didn’t win the division, it’s not like they’re at the bottom of the standings. They will finish second, likely with a winning record, which is a huge accomplishment when you think back just to the 2011 season, when .500 was a huge milestone. In 2008 and 2009, the Nationals were a terrible team, and they lost more than 100 games. (Usually they say a team will win 60 games, lose 60 games, and whether you make the playoffs depends on how you do in the third 60 games. In those years, the Nats didn’t even win 60 total).
Being that bad had one good side: good draft picks. In 2007, the Nats drafted Jordan Zimmermann, who has gone on to be, in my opinion, the best pitcher in Nationals history. In 2008, they got Danny Espinosa and Tyler Moore, both of whom have been keys to the Nationals bench. Earning the top pick in the draft in 2009, they picked Stephen Strasburg, then Drew Storen and Michael A. Taylor in later rounds. A year later, the draft got them Harper. So without the poor performances of the 2006-2010 Nationals, we wouldn’t be at the spot we are at right now. Zimmermann brought the Nats their first no-hitter. Strasburg has had four consecutive 10-strikeout games this year (and was one strikeout shy on Saturday of tying the franchise record of 14 established earlier this year by Scherzer). Storen has had his dark times, but he is probably the second-best closer in Nats history after Chad Cordero. Moore and Taylor have been great guys off the bench.
There’s a lot to celebrate in the recent years, but part of why this year feels like a letdown is that everyone thought this was the last chance to make a playoff run before Zimmermann, Ian Desmond and other key players leave in free agency. It feels bad not to win the division when in the past couple years you’ve had the best record in the National League or all of Major League Baseball. But this team is still very talented, and this is definitely not the end of the Nationals being playoff contenders. Everyone in the front office knows what needs to be improved, and I can guarantee they’ll be working on fixing the bullpen, adding a big bat (maybe in the outfield) and looking at management over the offseason. Maybe the Nats, like the San Francisco Giants, just do well in even years. If so, there is nothing to worry about.
Congratulations, Mets, on winning the NL East, but we will get you next year. So even though we won’t be raising a championship banner this year, as Brooklyn Dodgers fans always said, “There’s always next year.”