On the evening of October 12, 2012, I went to bed early, knowing my hometown team, the Washington Nationals, had the decisive fifth game of their playoff series against the St. Louis Cardinals well in hand. Entering the fifth inning, the Nats led 6-1, having come back from a two games to one deficit and with 21-game winner Gio Gonzalez on the mound. So, I hit record on my DVR and hit the hay, eager to watch the rest of the game play the following morning. Little did I know that night would begin a run of frustration, disappointment, and heartbreak that continued five years to the day later when the Nats lost another Game 5 at home, this time to the Chicago Cubs.
On one level, you have to hand it to the Nats. They have set an impossibly high bar for futility in such a short period of time. They have lost games (and series) because of fluke plays (non-call after Wieters got popped in the head by Baez?), one-hit wonders (CURSE YOU PETE KOZMA), epic performances (Clayton Kershaw in relief anyone?), questionable managerial decisions (looking at you Matt Williams for pulling Zimmermann in Game 1 of the 2014 NLDS), and of course, the epic meltdown I watched on tape-delay.
After this most recent collapse, the natural question was whether the Nats are chokers. Some have said these losses are not choke jobs, that instead, the Nats have simply been victim of an odd combination of bad luck, bad breaks, and bad calls. I don’t buy it. On paper, that is, by record, the Nats were better than all four teams they have lost to over the past five years. In each series they had home field advantage. Each Nats playoff team has been led by a man who won a World Series as a player and manager (Davey Johnson), as a player and managed in the World Series as a manager (Dusty Baker) or a guy who played for three World Series teams, winning one (Matt Williams). While the 2012 team was not that experienced, it was anchored by Jayson Werth, who had been signed the year before to provide precisely the type of “veteran leadership” that was needed in that brutal loss but every other playoff flameout had a roster full of players with plenty of playoff experience.
The irony is that there is not really a lot that can be done. On paper, they have few flaws. The one major problem this season, the bullpen, was addressed before the trade deadline, but other than Werth’s departure, which will immediately be filled by either Michael Taylor or Adam Eaton, who missed most of the year with a knee injury, and maybe upgrading at catcher, the team has few moves to make. Switching managers? What is the point? They have had well-credentialed managers who wear World Series rings and two of whom had won more than 1,500 games each as managers and it did not matter. Plus, what kind of message would it send to have a fourth manager helming the team in the last six years?
And that is what makes the Nats’ situation so frustrating. They are so good, the losses are that much more painful to watch. But going forward, the pain could be more acute and the good times could end. The team missed the playoffs the year after their division wins in 2012 and 2014 and player health is one of the great variables in sports (just ask this year’s New York Mets). More importantly, Bryce Harper and Daniel Murphy will be free agents after next season and Anthony Rendon the year after. The Lerners may try to avoid the drama and sign Harper to a mammoth contract, or lock down Murphy or Rendon, but one (or all) of them may leave, creating huge voids in a roster that is right now one of the deepest in baseball.
Occam’s Razor says that instead of looking for a complex answer, the simple one is usually true. With the Nats, the simple one is, they choke when the lights are brightest.
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