After winning the first division title in the modern franchise’s history (2005-present) in 2012, then losing their NLDS matchup to the St. Louis Cardinals, Washington’s Nationals failed to make it back to the postseason in 2013, in the second full season with veteran manager Davey Johnson on the bench.
In his first year as a manager in 2014, Matt Williams and the Nationals won the NL East again, but lost their NLDS matchup with the San Francisco Giants.
Williams lost his job (for a variety of reasons) after the Nationals disappointed in 2015, failing to win the division title or return to the postseason.
Dusty Baker was asked this winter, after he led the Nationals to their third division title in five years and their third NLDS loss in five years, how he will avoid the same fate as the last two NL East champions from the nation’s capital in the second year of his two-year deal in D.C.? Is the disappointment lingering?
“I don’t think that’s lingering at all, actually,” Baker told reporters at Winterfest earlier this month.
“I just think that’s how it’s come out and how it’s appeared. I mean, last year they had a bunch of injuries. That’s different than coming out flat. I’m not worried about my team coming out flat because I prepare them. I don’t worry about negative thoughts and negative occurrences. I just try to build on where we were, instead of going backwards worrying about things.”
While there have been disappointments in D.C. after they made their first two trips to the postseason, Baker said, “... that hasn’t happened to me too much, in my career.”
He also explained that he has reasons to believe the Nationals can improve upon what they did in 2016.
“We won 95 games and we had three or four guys with years that weren't indicative of them, you know? Quite honestly, I wanted to win 100 games. I won 103 games my first year [as a manager] and I remember telling [Tony] La Russa that's what I wanted to do this year. And I didn't tell you guys that because you would have written this guy is crazy already.”
“It was a situation of I remember La Russa telling me, ‘You don't know what you've done.’
“And I said, ‘No. What did I do?’
“And he said, ‘You won 100 games.’
“And I was like, ‘So? Why can't I do that every year?’ Nineteen years later, still haven't done it but I got quite a few 90s in there.”
Will Baker and the Nationals be able to match or improve on their 95-win season?
“I just thought about what we’d have done if they had some up years,” he said. “We had Danny Espinosa, we had [Ryan Zimmerman], we had both center fielders — who hit .220 or less. I think we did pretty good to win as many games as we did with guys having down years. [Bryce] Harper will rebound. He’s young enough where we’re not real worried about Harp. And soon the pride factor will come into it. You don’t like seeing those down years on your bubble gum cards. But everybody is capable of a down year and in modern baseball it’s like you’re never supposed to have a down year.
“There are years where all balls fall in and there are some years where every line drive is caught.
“I don’t anticipate him struggling like that, probably ever again. Because once you’ve struggled and once you know the signs of struggling, then once you’ve done it, then you’ll know how to kind of combat it.”
Baker also talked, after the deal that brought Adam Eaton to D.C. from the Chicago White Sox about how the Nationals could even be a better team defensively.
“Defensively it's a possibility that we could have [Gold] Gloves everywhere,” Baker said.
“This is what you want.
“Offense wins games but defense loses games. I'm big on defense, because if you -- the better defense you have the less you have to hit most of the time.
“We have more speed now, we're a speed defense and a pitching-oriented team that can hit. Let's not forget we won 95 games and we think that we've added to that.”