- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 8, 2014

SAN FRANCISCO — Bryce Harper was motionless as the ball tore through the air, floating higher and higher over AT&T Park. It flew over the foul pole in right field, over the rows of seats and the concrete walkway, over the farthest boundary of the stadium, finally splashing near a yellow kayak in McCovey Cove.

It was a moment of raw power followed by several moments of raw emotion.

After tying Game 4 of the National League Division Series against the San Francisco Giants on Tuesday night, Harper pointed to the sky and pumped his right fist as he sprinted around the bases. He cruised past the plate and windmilled a high five to Wilson Ramos in the on-deck circle. He screamed as he entered the dugout, then embraced Jayson Werth. The youngster and the veteran smiled and yelled and jumped up and down in unison.

The 2014 season was filled with moments like this for the Washington Nationals. They won a National League-best 96 games under rookie manager Matt Williams and won the NL East division title by a whopping 17-game margin. They produced the first no-hitter in D.C. since 1931 and at one point won 10 consecutive games, including five walk-off victories.

But when their season came to an abrupt end Tuesday night with a 3-2 loss to the Giants, it was hard to remember any of that. The Nationals‘ dreams of winning a World Series, of validating their regular-season success with a championship, had vanished. And at least for some players, it put the entire season in a new light.

“Right now, I can only look at it as a failure,” center fielder Denard Span said. “We had everything we needed to take it all the way to the World Series, take it the distance. We fell short, man. And it sucks. It really does.”

SEE ALSO: WILD AND OUT: Errant pitch dooms Nationals as Giants advance to NLCS

In Major League Baseball, 30 teams play a total of 2,430 games over a span of roughly 180 days during the regular season. But in the end, only one team can ultimately reach its goal and wins the World Series. Does that mean the other 29 seasons were failures?

“It’s hard to win the World Series,” Ryan Zimmerman said. “Obviously our goal is to win the World Series, but I think it’s hard to say your whole season’s a disappointment if you don’t win the World Series. We won 96 games and our division and did a lot of good things. So obviously we didn’t win the ultimate goal we wanted to, but I think we did a lot of good things as well.”

Establishing an identity

It started at spring training in Viera, Florida, in February when Williams first met with his team and asked a simple question: What will make up the Nationals‘ DNA?

Williams allowed the players set their own standards. They determined that they would play hard, fast and with unrelenting aggression. They pledged to run out every ground ball, no matter how routine it might seem. They pledged to push themselves on the basepaths, running from first to third and stealing bases. They pledged to grind out every at-bat. And they pledged to treat every game with significance and live by the time-honored cliche, “one game at a time.”

As the season began, there was no shortage of obstacles. Four of Washington’s eight Opening Day starters spent time on the disabled list during the season’s first month. By the end of May, the Nationals were one game below .500 and sitting in third place in the division.

Altogether, five starting position players spent a total of 222 games on the disabled list.

“We fought. We fought all year long,” shortstop Ian Desmond said. “I know every team comes across injuries and setbacks and things like that, but we had a big share of that. Guys stepped up.”

The Nationals continued to fight as summer turned to fall and the regular season made way for the postseason. They didn’t let up after clinching the division title in Atlanta in mid-September, nor after losing the first two games of the NLDS by one run apiece, including an 18-inning slugfest in Game 2.

“The one thing that you are is proud. Just of how the guys were, how they continued to battle,” utility man Kevin Frandsen said. “[Two games to none] down is a tough one to come back from, but we played our butts off, all the way through. It’s disappointing because I think all of us had different plans for going forward. I think we really enjoyed being around each other, playing together. It was the most together team I’ve ever been a part of in the big leagues.”

Which brings back the question of success and failure. Is success found in the attitude of the team, the camaraderie in the clubhouse, or the results on the field? What constitutes failure? And perhaps most importantly: can there be both?

“I think you’re ultimately judged on how many championships you win,” Williams said Tuesday afternoon, before Game 4. “That’s ultimately how you’ll be judged as a team or an organization or what have you.”

Disappointment still fresh

After the loss, the answers varied from player to player. Zimmerman tried to put the night in context. “It seems like a disappointing year right now, obviously,” he said. “But I wouldn’t say it’s a disappointing season.”

Frandsen said the season, with all things considered, had elements of both.

“It was successful just for the fact that we gave ourselves an opportunity by being in the playoffs,” he said. “It’s disappointing because I think we truly had what we thought was something truly special.”

Some, including closer Drew Storen, said it is impossible to adequately evaluate a season minutes after its end. “It’s still kind of fresh,” he said.

But for others, the results dictate the evaluation. First baseman Adam LaRoche called the regular season “a huge success,” but said the playoffs changed all of that.

“When you get into the postseason and don’t win the World Series, I think it is considered a failure,” he said. “Not from the fan’s perspective. Not from probably the coaches’ perspective. But from a player’s perspective. That was the objective back in spring training. It didn’t happen, so it’s a failure.”

Baseball boasts the longest schedule in professional sports, a marathon from spring training in February to, ideally, the World Series in October. The larger sample size of the regular season is more indicative of a team’s abilities. The playoffs are more indicative of that team’s potential.

Is it frustrating, then, that even the best regular season could unravel in a span of four days? Sure.

“We understand how it works,” Span said. “It’s too bad that we waited to the end of the season, to this point, when it was time to step up and make plays and make things happen, that we didn’t. We just came up short. Point-blank. Period.”

The visiting clubhouse slowly emptied Tuesday night, the players sharing a team flight back to Washington before soon scattering for the offseason.

Reliever Rafael Soriano will return to the Dominican Republic to be with his family. LaRoche will fly to Kansas and spent most of his time hunting. Span will take a vacation. He doesn’t know where, or for how long, but it will happen.

As they go their separate ways, the Nationals will have plenty of time to further digest the season and its demise. They will look back at the highs and the lows, the towering Harper home runs and the hitless nights, the Gatorade baths and October heartbreak, and decide for themselves what it all means.

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