ST. LOUIS — It was not easy for Davey Johnson to get to sleep on Monday night.
For the first time since September 2011, the Washington Nationals’ manager returned from a game knowing that the next one was meaningless to their fate. The night his team was eliminated from playoff contention left the 70-year-old tossing and turning.
“Things run through your mind,” he said Tuesday. “‘What if? What if?’
“All of a sudden it hits you like a ton of bricks. You say ‘Oh, dang, now what am I going to do?’ I go home, that’s what I do.”
For the Nationals, once the cold reality of elimination began to set in, there wasn’t much else to do other than pick themselves up and return to the field. They had five more games to play.
But how their season got here, how such bravado — justified by immense potential — and expectation withered away over the course of the summer, is a question the Nationals will be trying to answer for months as they analyze the year and try to avoid repeating their missteps.
It is no small task.
“If it was that easy to figure it out people would pick who’s going to win every year, who’s going to win every award and what people are going to hit,” said third baseman Ryan Zimmerman. “That’s why sports are so appealing.
“Obviously we’re a better team than what we showed, but at the end of the year we’re going to have close to 90 wins so it’s not like we were terrible. The Braves played really well. We dug ourselves too big of a hole to somehow sneak into the playoffs and that’s just kind of the way it was. Hopefully we’ll learn from the mistakes or the experience of this year and use it next year.”
As Johnson said late Monday night, there are “a thousand different” reasons the Nationals’ season ended in elimination, as opposed to celebration. But here are three issues that contributed to their struggle:
Every team deals with injuries and many were dealt a far worse hand than the Nationals. But they did lose key members for an extended period of time with Bryce Harper, Jayson Werth, Wilson Ramos and Ross Detwiler all missing at least a month of action.
“I’m not going to sit here and tell you that I’m a game-changer or anything like that but we’re a great team and me being in this lineup is huge,” Harper said Monday, acknowledging the Nationals’ 63-51 record with him in the lineup, compared to 21-22 without him. “I’ve got to try to be in this lineup every night.”
Similarly, the Nationals went 69-56 when Werth played, and 15-17 when he didn’t. Ramos, who missed the most time of any position player, helped them to a 46-28 record. They were 38-45 in his absence. When all three players were in the lineup, the Nationals were 33-20 — a .623 winning percentage and a 100-win pace.
Failings of the bullpen and bench
The Nationals’ bench rebounded in the second half, right along with the rest of their offense, and the contributions from Steve Lombardozzi, Scott Hairston and Chad Tracy, who all rank in the top 15 in the NL in pinch hits, have helped. But it has done little to improve their overall numbers in the pinch-hit department.
The Nationals’ .253 pinch-hit on-base percentage is the second-worst in the NL — and their 17 RBI from pinch hitters ranks last in the league as well.
“[Lombardozzi] has been my best pinch-hitter all year long,” Johnson said. “Everyone else has been kind of non-existent, really. I was hoping that would be one the strong points coming in, production out of the bench, because that’s where you win a lot of ballgames.
But some of the players the Nationals relied on to do that failed. Tyler Moore struggled in that role at the start of the season, and still has just one pinch hit in 18 at-bats, and Roger Bernadina followed up his career-best season with an abysmal encore before the team finally released him in August.
In the same way, the Nationals’ bullpen configuration was set up for them to rely on players who were not comfortable in their roles. And the search for capable left-handed relief dragged on for much of the season, despite bursts from Ian Krol and Fernando Abad, and Xavier Cedeno most recently. It forced others into different roles as well, contributing to the immense struggles of Drew Storen before he righted himself in a brief stint in Triple-A.
The Nationals, who also were among the league’s most error-riddled clubs, lost 16 games this season when they were leading from the seventh inning on, and they lost 33 games when they were tied in the seventh inning or later.
A glance at the Nationals’ starting lineup belies just how mightily they struggled to score runs from April through July. They boast five regulars with 20 or more home runs and another, in Ramos, who has 15 in just 75 games. Only one starting position player, Adam LaRoche, is hitting below .263.
But their second-half resurgence has helped to smooth those numbers over.
From the start of the season until July 22, when they fired hitting coach Rick Eckstein, the Nationals averaged just 3.7 runs per game. In the 59 games since, under the tutelage of Rick Schu, that number has jumped more than a run per game to 4.8.
The cause and effect there is “debatable,” as general manager Mike Rizzo put it last week. But the simple fact is that a lineup full of good hitters vastly underperformed throughout the first 100 games of the season and the Nationals put untold amounts of stress on their pitchers by scoring two runs or fewer in a remarkable 61 games.
“When you talk about winning games, you’ve got to play good defense, you’ve got to pitch well and you’ve got to have some timely hitting,” said shortstop Ian Desmond. “We didn’t win enough games. I’m assuming those three things were what we lacked.
“It doesn’t mean we’re not capable of doing it. If we would’ve played the way we did in August and September early on in the year we probably wouldn’t be in this situation, but this is what it is and we’ve got to deal with it.”