I was at Nationals Park on Opening Day when the team beat the Marlins 2-0. Sports Illustrated had tagged the Nats as the Team To Beat in baseball, but even then, I had concerns. On that day, outside of Bryce Harper’s two homers, there was almost no offense against a very bad team. I also feared for the depth of the bullpen.
It didn’t take long for those fears to be validated. After the Cardinals swept the Nats in a series here in late April, Stephen Strasburg was 1-4, the team was 10-11 and Atlanta already was pulling away into the mists.
On Sunday, I saw the last home game of the year for the Nats. Miami was here again and the Nationals pulled out a dramatic 5-4 win with a run in the bottom of the ninth. It was the kind of victory you didn’t see much of this year until mid-August, when the all-but-dead Nats finally started living up to the preseason hype.
If you’re a fan, you know the story: by mid-June, everyone was pointing at the All-Star break and saying the Nats would turn it around in the second half. Instead, they came out of the break and lost their first six games. That was it, really: I had no rational expectations that the Nats would make the playoffs.
That also made the team’s late-season charge frustrating on one level. They’re still technically not out of it, but they will be in the next day or two, and just a little more focus earlier in the season would have been enough to put them over the top. And thus we will wait until next year, by which time the team hopefully will have found a way to generate more offense and improve its bullpen.
But in the last week of this season, the Nats again face the Cardinals — this time in St. Louis. These are the Cards who crushed the Nats’ dreams in the playoffs last year and subsequently exposed the Nats for what they were this year. But the September Nationals are not the April Nationals, and the Cardinals are in a real battle to win the National League Central and avoid a one-game wild card playoff. If the Nats really want to send the league a year-end message, they can start by applying a little payback and sweeping the Cards.