As you can probably tell, it’s a hard time for sportswriters to come up with content given the lack of, well, sports. We used up most of our build-up pieces when the season wasn’t under threat and now we just await crumbs of new information to write about.
With the dearth of current content, we may have some slightly more historical-ish pieces coming up, reflecting on some of the Nationals teams of the past 15 years.
So, one topic suggestion that ended up coming across our desk last week from SB Nation was this: Which Washington Nationals team was the best to never win a World Series?
If this question were for franchise history, which you could argue that it should be, then the clear answer would be the 1994 Montreal Expos who were well on their way to dominating the National League until the players went on strike in August of that year.
However, to muster up a bit more debate, we’ll narrow down the options to since the franchise moved south of the border to the nation’s capital in 2005.
When we do that, there’s plenty of debate to be had. While you can basically write off any team before the new Nationals’ first playoff appearance in 2012, any team after that could have a reasonable case. Well, aside from the one that did actually win the World Series last season.
The options included the young guns in 2012 that leapt into contention, the 2014 regular season powerhouse, the 2016 and 2017 teams that thrived under Dusty Baker, and the 2018 group that, despite the talent, underachieved and stumbled to a lackluster 82-80 record.
But the one that may just take it above all of the rest is the 2015 iteration of the Nationals.
Coming off of a season where they held the best record in the National League before being dumped out in the NLDS by the eventual World Series champion San Francisco Giants, the Nationals only went out and added the best free agent on the market in Max Scherzer.
The right-hander had just completed two sensational seasons to wrap up his five-year stint in Detroit that had him in the statistical company of the very best pitchers in the game.
Between 2013 and 2014, he had compiled the third-most fWAR in all of baseball among pitchers, behind Clayton Kershaw and Félix Hernández, who were both at the peak of their dominance at that time, as well as scooping up a Cy Young in ‘13.
Scherzer joined Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann, and Doug Fister in the stacked rotation. When Fister, who had posted an impressive 2.41 ERA and finished 8th in the Cy Young voting the year before, is your fifth starter, you should be in pretty good shape.
“Where’s my ring?” said Bryce Harper at the start of Spring Training as the addition of Scherzer gave the Nats a potentially historic rotation that should’ve guided them to an easy division title.
Harper himself appeared to be just scratching the surface of his talent too. Following an impressive series in the 2014 NLDS, the 22-year-old outfielder was primed for a breakout.
But Harper wasn’t the only hitter other teams had circled on their lineup card.
Jayson Werth was coming off a season where he received MVP votes for a second-straight season. Ian Desmond had reached 20 home runs and 20 steals in each of the previous three seasons. Entering his age-30 season, Ryan Zimmerman showed no signs of slowing down at the plate, even after an injury-plagued 2014 that included a weird stint in left field. And then there was Anthony Rendon, who had just finished fifth in NL MVP voting in his sophomore season.
There’s no question that this team was absolutely stacked on both sides of the ball.
In a poll of 88 ESPN experts, the Nationals were the overwhelming choice to win the World Series, garnering 37 of the 88 votes, with the next-nearest the Los Angeles Dodgers, who got 17 votes. On paper, it looked like the time had finally come for the Nats...
Despite struggling to get out of second gear at times early on, after their 4th of July series with the Giants, the Nats were in a strong position to make the postseason for the third time in four seasons as they led the New York Mets by 4.5 games in the NL East.
They also seemed to be getting hot too, winning 12 of their last 15 games despite having Strasburg, Werth, Zimmerman, and Rendon on the Disabled List. It was thought that this team could take off when they got them back healthy at the end of July.
Oh, and remember that Harper fella? He was in the midst of his sensational year that would see him become the youngest unanimous MVP in the sport’s history. At that point, he had an unbelievable slash line of .347/.474/.722 to go with 25 home runs, 60 RBIs, and more walks than strikeouts.
Even the bullpen wasn’t in completely awful shape. Drew Storen, now re-installed as closer after Rafael Soriano’s contract expired, was the anchor of the relief corps and back to dominant form again at the back-end of the bullpen with a 1.97 ERA after the Giants series.
So what ended up going wrong for a team that looked in decent shape in July and had arguably the most talented roster in all of baseball?
While it certainly wasn’t the only reason, as the season went on and after the season, it became clear that manager Matt Williams was not the right man for the job. Less than 12 months after guiding the Nats to the best record in baseball, he looked lost.
The former five-time All-Star as a player continually struggled with decision-making that had just become more and more baffling as the year went on, especially with his bullpen.
But this was more than just some poor decision-making in general. There was a report of clubhouse discontent with Williams’ managing style, claiming it was too uptight and not allowing players to relax, which eventually came to a head.
This flaw might be even more poignant after the positive clubhouse atmosphere that Dave Martinez fostered in 2019, helping the team bring a World Series title back to Washington.
So, what did a poor clubhouse atmosphere really need? Jonathan Papelbon of course!
Even though the report about Williams losing the clubhouse came out in August before Papelbon joined the team, the signs of discontent were likely already making their way through the team and adding the mercurial reliever certainly didn’t help matters.
GM Mike Rizzo hasn’t often made head-scratching trades with the Nationals, but this trade, his only one at the '15 deadline, could certainly fit into that category.
It wasn’t necessarily a head-scratcher because of the raw numbers. Giving up a solid but not spectacular prospect in Nick Pivetta for a closer with postseason experience who was having one of his best seasons in the majors with a 1.59 ERA and no blown saves made sense.
Yes, his contract wasn’t great and as part of the deal they had to renegotiate his 2016 option to a guaranteed $11 million, though some of that ended up being deferred.
What made it puzzling though was adding a player who had often been considered as a poor clubhouse influence to instantly usurp Storen as the team’s closer. Especially after Storen had arguably been even better than Papelbon to that point in the season.
Sure, the Nationals needed bullpen help, but it was thought that help would be better coming in the form of multiple set-up men instead of upsetting the apple cart by demoting Storen.
Regardless, by the time Papelbon recorded his first save for the Nationals two days later, they were three games up on the Mets about to head to Citi Field for a season-defining series. The problem was, it was season-defining for all the wrong reasons.
Entering that series, the Nats had a chance to put a significant nail in the Mets’ coffin. Instead, an emotional walk-off home run from Wilmer Flores in the first game of the set paved the way for a sweep for the hosts that helped jumpstart New York’s season.
Though he didn’t have a huge impact in that series, the Mets’ newly-acquired outfielder Yoenis Céspedes was at the heart of it. He would slash .287/.337/.604 with 17 home runs and 44 RBIs in just 57 games for the Mets, even picking up NL MVP votes at the end of the year.
Meanwhile, the Nationals, who were seven games above .500 coming into the series tumbled very quickly to 58-58 on August 15th. Everything was starting to go wrong.
The bullpen got worse after the Papelbon addition and Storen just spiraled out of control surrendering multiple runs in four-straight appearances that ballooned his ERA to 3.40. The offense went very hot and cold as Williams continued to trot out a much the same lineup every day, including those who recently came back from injury without many days off.
Even with things falling apart, the Nationals had a slim chance to climb back into the division race in mid-September when they welcomed those division-leading Mets to Nats Park.
Four games back from the Mets. On a five-game win streak. Scherzer, Zimmermann, and Strasburg lined up to start the three-game set. If the Nationals could get a sweep, then it was game on, but they simply had to at least take two out of three to make it a race.
But, somewhat poetically, the Nats were once again swept out of the series just like they were around the trade deadline in Queens, and the second game sealed the season’s fate.
Having lost the first contest, the Nationals chased Matt Harvey for seven runs in six innings and led 7-1 entering the seventh inning. Then came the Nats’ bullpen combining to concede six runs in the top of the frame before Papelbon allowed the go-ahead run in the eighth.
Before you knew it, the Mets were seven games up on Washington, putting the division to bed in mid-September and compounding the disappoint that was this 2015 Nationals team.
They still weren’t done though. For a final act, the Nationals left one last reminder of the dysfunctional clubhouse that had developed that season with one of the more memorable moments in franchise history, even if it was for all of the wrong reasons.
In the second-last home game of the season, tied 4-4 with the Phillies, Harper popped out to left field and pretty casually sauntered down to first base before the ball was caught. Papelbon, not one to shy away from speaking his mind, told the MVP-to-be he should’ve run it out, eventually leading to the reliever grasping the outfielder’s throat in the dugout.
To top it all off, Papelbon went back out for the ninth inning and promptly blew the game.
83-79 was the final record. A team that looked like an overwhelming favorite in its division and arguably the entire senior circuit and they could only finish four games above .500.
Looking back on the 2015 incarnation of the Nationals, they probably had the most raw talent of any group that has donned the Curly W since the franchise moved to Washington.
Talented teams still need to come together as one sometimes though. The ‘15 Nats’ clubhouse became a mess, they could never put it all together that year and had to watch the division-rival Mets make it all the way to the Fall Classic.
Soon, the Nationals would learn their lesson and clubhouse chemistry would be one of the driving forces behind their championship team in 2019.
But following the 2015 season, there were some hard pills to swallow after a huge wasted opportunity to bring a title back to D.C. that slipped by because of serious dysfunction, some major underperformance, and a rampant division-rival who never said die...