Minutes after the Washington Nationals had secured a wind-whipped victory in Game 1 of what turned into a 167-game journey, first baseman Adam LaRoche said what had just transpired under the ivy at Wrigley Field “felt like a playoff game. It really did.”
They didn’t know then that 97 more regular-season victories would follow, but only two in the playoffs.
Players and coaches packed up their lockers at Nationals Park on Saturday morning, beginning the long process of analyzing their postseason. Up 6-0 on St. Louis by the third inning of Game 5 in their National League Division Series, the Nats lost 9-7. They had a two-run lead with two outs in the ninth before giving up four runs.
A year filled with success was tainted by its final inning.
“It’s definitely going to take some time,” third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said, his back pressed up against a brown leather couch with microphones and cameras three and four rows deep around him.
“To do a lot of the things we did this year as a team — a lot of individual guys had great seasons, to win a division, to do a lot of things that have never even been thought of around here — it was a great year, and it was a lot of fun. But right now, it stings a little bit.”
That’s the sting they said they need to remember. The feeling they need to drive them through the winter. The Nationals believe they will be back — one of the main principles behind their decision to limit Stephen Strasburg’s workload. They believe their run among the league’s elite will not be just this one magical season. They’re built for the long haul.
In the hours after their stunning collapse, they had to believe it.
“I think we’ll use it as a learning experience,” said general manager Mike Rizzo. “And have a burning desire never for it to happen again. I think in the long run, it’ll be something we look back on and say, ‘It was an experience. It was a tough experience, but it’s one that made us grow.’”
The process of building their 2013 roster began nearly a month ago, and the Nationals have already started to address some of their most pressing offseason questions. Contract negotiations with Adam LaRoche are in the early stages. And outside of the first baseman and Sean Burnett, who have mutual options to return on their current contracts, Edwin Jackson, Michael Gonzalez and Mark DeRosa are the team’s only impending free agents.
The Nationals go into the winter with very few holes on their roster, much the way they did entering 2012.
They have no plans to cut short the seasons of any of their top four starting pitchers: Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann and Ross Detwiler. Starters at seven of the eight field positions are under contract (LaRoche the exception) and Wilson Ramos is expected to rejoin Kurt Suzuki in the catching corps next spring with a healthy right knee.
They’ll have a 20-year-old Bryce Harper in the outfield and the lineup with almost a full year of major league experience under his belt and the hope of improving on his remarkable rookie season.
The question of whether the man in the manager’s office, Davey Johnson, will return is met with incredulity by team personnel. “He better be back,” said shortstop Ian Desmond. “I don’t know what we’ll do without him.” And even Johnson has discussed “next year” in the abstract.
Johnson is under contract as a consultant but keeping him as the manager will be as simple as a conversation between he and Rizzo.
“We proved our worth,” Johnson said, his face somber. “We just need to let this be a lesson and learn from it. Have more resolve. Come back and carry it a lot farther.”
They’ll have to first figure out how to get over it, a reality several players were unsure how to process in the immediate aftermath. The Philadelphia Phillies and the New York Yankees lead a list of teams that failed in their first trips to the postseason or after prolonged absences. Both won the World Series the following season. The Nationals took solace in that history.
“It’s life,” Desmond said. “You run into some trials and tribulations. You endure, and you build character. We’re fortunate to have the majority of the team returning. Our bond is only going to get stronger, and we’re only going to get better.”
“This will hurt for a couple days, and then I think we’ll all have a chance to kind of look back and see what we did,” Zimmerman said. “I think we should all be very proud of what we did this year.”