It’s true that one could make a case for any Washington Nationals team from 2012-2018 as the best team not to win a championship, but as far as I’m concerned, the honor goes to the 2016 club. Even with injuries to some key players and a few notable underachievers, the Nats took full advantage of the leadership of Dusty Baker, the dominating mound presence of Max Scherzer, the hitting of Daniel Murphy, and a reworked bullpen to go 95-67, rolling to their third National League East title. They earned home-field advantage over the NL West champion Los Angeles Dodgers in the Division Series, but as we all know now, the Nats suffered another heartbreaking, five-game, first-round loss, dropping three excruciating one-run games.
Coming off a disappointing 2015 season for almost everyone but reigning MVP Bryce Harper, the Nats cast off inexperienced and aloof manager Matt Williams in favor of Baker’s warmer, hands-on, gut-instinct style. But the Nats didn’t stop at the manager’s office in remaking their team. Shortly after Baker came aboard, General Manager Mike Rizzo came away from the free-agent market as a big winner for the second year on a row, landing second baseman Daniel Murphy, one year removed from an All-Star selection and hot on the heels of a seven-homer, 11-RBI postseason, in which he almost single-handedly secured the NL Pennant for the New York Mets.
The Nats also said goodbye to reliever Drew Storen, widely blamed for both the 2012 NLDS loss to St. Louis and the epic 2015 regular-season meltdown, shipping him to Toronto for center fielder Ben Revere. The move also seemed to secure the closer’s spot for Jonathan Papelbon, who was about as unpopular with fans as Storen, after his dugout brawl with Bryce Harper.
What went right? Almost everything, at least at the start. With Scherzer on the mound and Harper hitting his third career opening-day home run, the Nats beat Atlanta, then swept five more from the Braves en route to a 16-7 month of April. After briefly falling a half game out of first place during a four-game skid in early May, they re-took the division lead, built it to six games by the All-Star Break, and won the division by eight games over the Mets.
As usual, the strength was starting pitching. Scherzer collected his second career Cy Young Award, and first as a Nat, winning 15 of his last 18 decisions to finish 20-7 with a 2.96 ERA and 284 strikeouts. The highlight of his season, and one of the best individual performances of his career, came on May 11, when he struck out 20 Detroit Tigers, tying the major league record for a nine-inning game, in a 3-2 complete-game victory.
Almost overlooked was Stephen Strasburg, who bounced back from an injury-curtailed 2015 to win his first 12 starts and rack up a personal win streak of 16 games, dating back the previous year. He also secured his own future, and that of the Nats, by signing a seven-year, $175 million contract extension. Tanner Roark also pitched effectively after spending the previous season in the bullpen, going a career-best 16-10.
Murphy quickly became the team’s leading hitter, with a .370 average in April. The power soon followed, with seven home runs in May to launch him to a 25-homer 105-RBI campaign. Before the last regular-season game, his .347 average was less than a percentage point behind Colorado’s D.J. LeMahieu for the NL and major league lead. After learning that LeMahieu hadn’t played, the Nats Park crowd gave Murphy a standing ovation when he stepped in to pinch hit in the bottom of the fifth against Miami. But Murphy flied out to right field, allowing LeMahieu to win the batting title sitting on the bench.
Catcher Wilson Ramos put together the season the Nationals had been hoping for since they acquired him in 2010, hitting .307 with 22 home runs and 80 RBI and avoiding the injuries that had plagued his career for almost the entire season.
Another pleasant surprise was shortstop Danny Espinosa, who won the starting shortstop job from rookie Trea Turner in Spring Training with his trademark outstanding defense.
Despite a .206 batting average, Espinosa belted a career-high 24 homers, 18 of them batting eighth, the most ever for an eight-hole hitter.
What went wrong? The short answer is injuries to key players at the worst possible time. But there were also underperformance issues that nagged the team into the postseason.
It started with Harper, who followed his MVP season with his worst statistical totals since his rookie year, hitting .243 with 24 homers and 83 RBIs. The trouble seemed to start in May, when the Chicago Cubs walked him six times in one game and 13 times in a three-game series. From that point, he rarely saw good pitches to hit, and spent much of the season denying reports of a phantom neck or shoulder injury. Harper was injured for real late in the season, jamming his thumb on a slide into third.
Batting after Harper for much of the season, Ryan Zimmerman suffered through the worst year to that point of his illustrious career, hitting just .218 with 14 home runs and 46 RBIs.
Trying to play through a series of nagging injuries, he missed a few games here and there before landing on the disabled list for two weeks in mid-July.
On his return, however, Zim hit the high and low points of his season in a span of three games in San Francisco. On July 29, in the eighth inning of a 4-1 Nats victory, Zimmerman turned the team’s first triple play since moving to Washington in 2005. Playing behind the runner with the bases loaded, he snagged Brandon Crawford’s liner inches off the ground, moved quickly to the bag to double off Buster Posey, then fired to Anthony Rendon at third to retire Denard Span, who had broken for home. It was also the first 3-3-5 triple play in major league history. Two nights later, in the ninth inning of a 3-2 loss to the Giants, a 1-2 pitch from Santiago Casilla hit Zimmerman on the left wrist, sending him back to the DL for three weeks.
Papelbon got off to a solid start as the team’s undisputed closer, with 8 of his 19 saves in April. But as the season wore on, he lost effectiveness, and on July 30, Rizzo acquired Mark Melancon from Pittsburgh to assume ninth-inning duties. Papelbon reportedly agreed to a new role in the bullpen but appeared in just two more games and was released in August. Melancon would save 11 games down the stretch and pitch effectively in the postseason, but the rest of the pen ultimately came up short.
Revere never found his stroke in center field, hitting just .217, and by the end of the season, the Nats had called up Turner from AAA to play center, a move that carried into the postseason.
What proved to be the season-killing injuries were to Strasburg, who injured his elbow in August and did not pitch in the postseason, and Ramos, who tore his right anterior cruciate ligament on Sept. 26 after jumping to take a high throw from first. The injuries ended both players’ best seasons to date and left the Nats with gaping holes in the middle of their lineup and rotation, just as they were getting ready for the postseason.
The painful end: In Game 1 of the NLDS, Scherzer allowed homers to Corey Seager and Justin Turner, digging a 4-0 hole before the Nats rallied against Clayton Kershaw behind two RBIs from Anthony Rendon and one from Trea Turner. But Washington stranded the tying run on base in four of the last five innings and fell behind in the series, 1-0.
The Nats were able to rally from a 2-0 deficit to win Game 2, 5-2, behind a three-run homer by Jose Lobaton and a 3-for-3, two-RBI day for Murphy. Blake Treinen got the win, as the Nats bullpen shut out the Dodgers for the final 4 1/3 innings, and the series headed to LA knotted at 1-1.
The Nats came one game from that elusive series win by beating the Dodgers 8-3 in Game 3. Anthony Rendon hit a two-run homer to give Gio Gonzalez a 4-1 lead in the fifth. After the Dodgers pulled within one in the bottom of the inning, the Nats’ bullpen again came through, shutting out the Dodgers the rest of the way, while Jayson Werth homered and Zimmerman had a two-run double off Dodgers’ closer Kenley Jansen.
With their first chance to eliminate an opponent since 2012, the Nats faced Dodgers ace Kershaw, who held them to a pair of runs in the first six innings while his team built a 5-2 lead. But the Nats rallied in the seventh, loading the bases against Kershaw. Reliever Carlos Baez hit Werth to bring in one run, and Murphy doubled in two more to tie the game at 5-5.
The Nats’ streak of bullpen success ended in the eighth, when Treinen allowed a two-out, go-ahead single to Chase Utley, ultimately sending the series back to Washington.
On the mound for Game 5, Scherzer stymied the Dodgers for the first six innings but had only a 1-0 lead, courtesy of an RBI single by Espinosa. Then Scherzer allowed a homer to Joc Pederson, and Baker pulled him after 99 pitches. Once again, the bullpen failed to match its earlier dominance. Treinen gave up an RBI single to future Nats’ postseason hero Howie Kendrick. Sammy Solis allowed another run-scoring single to Carlos Ruiz, and Shawn Kelley surrendered a two-run triple to Justin Turner. The Nats pulled within one in the bottom of the seventh on Chris Heisey’s two-run homer, then loaded the bases against Jansen, who struck out Rendon to end the threat. Jansen walked Harper with one out in the ninth to give the Nats a glimmer of hope, but the Dodgers called on Kershaw, who got Murphy to pop out and struck out rookie Wilmer Difo, sending the Nats home for the winter for the third time in five years.