- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 14, 2014

Behind the massive gray folding wall, bitterness countered the laughter and smiles on the other side. In the main area, Washington Nationals players sat for photos on “couch cam”, signed autographs and played games on a stage flanked by two massive screens during NatsFest on Saturday.

Behind all the hi-jinks, players explained their level of disappointment with last season’s first-round playoff loss to eventual World Series champion San Francisco Giants.

“It’s still heart-breaking and I still feel like we should have won the World Series,” reliever Jerry Blevins said. “It left a bitter taste in my mouth and I’m not sure I’ll ever get over it. It just fuels your fire to get ready for next year.”

Playoff watching varied once the Nationals were eliminated. Reliever Craig Stammen only watched Game 7 of the World Series. Matt Thornton said he watched a lot of the remaining postseason. Third baseman Anthony Rendon said he flipped on basketball to watch his beloved Houston Rockets. Even though it’s December, reliever Tyler Clippard still wondered about some aspects of 3-1 series loss to the Giants.

“You know, it’s frustrating, because I feel like that series against the Giants, we definitely could have won that series,” Clippard said. “They scored nine runs, we scored nine runs, and they won three of the four games, which is very unusual, how those kind of games transpired.

“(Giants starter) Madison Bumgarner had one of the best postseasons of all-time and we were the only team that beat him. So, you look back on stuff like that, and you’re like, man, it could have been a lot different for us. But, at the same time, you take away the positives and don’t dwell on the negative stuff and build for the following season.”

Saturday’s soiree at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center was missing a distinct member of the Nationals. Outfielder Bryce Harper did not attend because of his arbitration grievance.

According to general manager Mike Rizzo, Harper chose not to be at NatsFest.

“We’re disappointed he’s not here,” Rizzo said.

Harper is in a dispute with the Nationals about whether he is eligible for arbitration. When Harper first signed his contract, the Nationals did not include an opt-out clause which would allow Harper to go into arbitration, if he became eligible. Harper’s agent, Scott Boras, thought there should be one. Since the contract was signed just before the deadline, the MLBPA negotiated an option that said there would be a grievance hearing if Harper qualified for arbitration.

Harper’s camp is arguing that he is “Super 2” eligible, at this point, meaning he is a player that ranks in the top 22 percent of players with between two to three years of Major League service time. Hence, he’s eligible for arbitration and what could amount to a $1 million raise next season.

The sides can settle before the hearing, which is scheduled for Tuesday, though that seems unlikely. Regardless of the outcome, Harper remains under club control until 2018 and under contract for 2015.

Outfielder Jayson Werth was at the event, but did not speak with reporters. Rizzo said it was his decision for Werth not to talk to the media.

“He’s going to be around and meet the fans and visit with the fans,” Rizzo said. “I think that’s the important part of what he should be doing.”

Werth was sentenced Dec. 5 to five days in jail for a speeding ticket received July 6 on the Capital Beltway. Police said Werth was driving 105 mph. He has appealed the ruling.

The Nationals’ highest-paid player also did not speak to the media after they were eliminated from the playoffs by the Giants.

That ending is what the Nationals are pushing aside as the end of the calendar year approaches. They have multiple important players — from Ian Desmond to Jordan Zimmerman — moving into the final year of their contracts. The job at second base is open. Rizzo still has numerous negotiations and trade situations to manage. Just four playoff games was a sudden turn for a team that won 96 and the National League East Division title for the second time in three seasons.

“It always ends so abruptly when you don’t win, so it’s disappointing,” manager Matt Williams said. “We had a chance to get to the playoffs and wanted to go further and it didn’t happen. At that point you understand the playoff series and understand the season as a whole, I would rate it as a success for us.

“It was a good learning experience for our guys moving forward and hopefully we get a chance to get back and take the next step and hopefully beyond that. For 29 teams it all ends way too fast. We want to be the last ones standing at some point.”

• Todd Dybas can be reached at tdybas@washingtontimes.com.

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