- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 27, 2015

Jayson Werth lingered in right field on Saturday night. The truth was in lights over his shoulder on the out-of-town scoreboard. The New York Mets’ win in Cincinnati meant the Washington Nationals, the most expensive team in the city’s baseball history, had gone bust. Werth jogged to the dugout slowly for the bottom of the ninth inning, then decelerated to a walk. He whacked his glove on the dugout railing. The Nationals were eliminated from the postseason. A week of meaningless games remained.

“I mean, it’s tough; it’s tough to play when you really don’t have anything to play for,” Werth said. “It’s unfortunate, really. … Been playing this game a long time, and every year your goal is to win a World Series, so when that is finally realized that that’s not the case, you know, it’s tough. A lot of hard work, a lot of time spent working towards the goal. When it’s over, it’s, um, it sucks.”

The Nationals entered the season as emphatic favorites not to just win their division, but to win the World Series. One compilation of four national outlets had 104 media members select a winner of the National League East. All picked the Nationals.

Yet, a surge never came. For the second time in three seasons, the club will not be in the playoffs. The Nationals need to win the remainder of their games in order match their 2013 record. If not, they will finish with their worst record since 2011, when they were an 80-81 afterthought.

Not long after Werth’s dejected jog off the field, video of the celebrating Mets began to be passed around on social media. Trade deadline acquisition Yoenis Cespedes worked a cigar. Mets captain David Wright wore a T-shirt that said, “The East is ours.” Former Nationals reliever Tyler Clippard, whom the Nationals traded in the offseason, and the Mets traded for midseason, danced with uninhibited steps.

Asked prior by reporters when things turned, Michael Cuddyer of the Mets pointed to a three-game sweep in New York at the start of July. The Nationals lost the first game of the series in the 12th inning. The next day, they dropped another one-run game. In the final game, the Mets hit three home runs in the span of four batters against Jordan Zimmermann. The Nationals left tied in the standings. They are 25-27 since.

“It’s weird,” Max Scherzer said. “I can remember that series. We took a good punch in the chin from them, but we also realized we were still in first place after getting swept there. From our standpoint, we weren’t overly phased by that. They might have gotten confidence from that. We just played three tight games with them. There were moments throughout the year where we rallied together and really thought we were going to right our ship. At the end of the day, our losing streaks were longer than our winning streaks, and that’s just not a recipe for success.”

Manager Matt Williams, who does not speak with reporters before day games on Sunday, remained in day-by-day mode Saturday night. Asked repeatedly for thoughts on his projected juggernaut being eliminated from the playoffs, Williams demurred, saying the team needed to prepare for the next day. Sunday’s postgame press conference was focused on not answering questions about a dugout altercation between Bryce Harper and Jonathan Papelbon.

The problem for the Nationals is that tomorrow is no longer influential. The white sign above “Nationals Park” on the center field scoreboard reads, “NL East Division Champions 2014.” The open slot next to it, same width and height, will not immediately be filled.

“I’m more surprised than anything else,” Werth said. “I never thought we’d end up here. Obviously, we have underachieved. We haven’t played well. We haven’t won games. We’ve done a lot of things that got us here. … I would have never thought we’d be sitting here having this conversation with seven, eight games left. Would have bet the other way.”

The close of the season likely means the end for numerous players on the roster, including stalwarts Ian Desmond and Zimmermann. The 30-year-old Desmond has never played for another organization. When he was drafted by the Montreal Expos in 2004, he didn’t have children. Saturday night, three young boys — one still so new, Desmond popped a binky in his mouth before starting an interview — followed him around.

The odds of Desmond returning for 2016 or beyond fluctuated with his careening season. He hit .211 and struck out 99 times before the all-star break. His defense was poor. Desmond, who has won three consecutive NL Silver Slugger Awards at shortstop, rebounded in the second half to hit .269 with 12 home runs. He went 3-for-3 in his final home game and received a standing ovation when removed in the top of the ninth inning. The Nationals could provide Desmond with a qualifying offer in the offseason, something he said would be among the many considerations of what to do next. For now, he has a nostalgic week remaining, and an uncertain future for the first time.

“Take it for what it is,” Desmond said. “Nothing bad. [Feeling nostalgic is] a good sign. Just kind of embrace and realize it feels this way because I have built some really good relationships with some [reporters], fans and obviously everyone in [the clubhouse]. It’s all good stuff. Everything is positive, obviously except the team situation.”

Center fielder Denard Span and pitcher Doug Fister are also in the final year of their contracts. Reliever Drew Storen is in an odd place after being removed from the closer’s spot and breaking his right thumb after angrily shutting the lockbox in his locker following a poor performance. Multiple parts of an underachieving bullpen, including Matt Thornton and Casey Janssen, are unlikely to be back.

“Yeah, I think I said that in February,” Werth said. “This would be the last run of this core group of guys. Team’s got a chance to be drastically different next year. So, that’s tough. It’s my fifth year here. Play with these guys, get to know these guys, go to work with these guys every day, you’re basically family. It’s unfortunate. It sucks. You want to win. You want to keep playing. you want to be the last team standing. When that’s not the case, it’s no good.”

On Sunday afternoon, Nationals players stretched just beyond first base before loss No. 76 began. They watched the large video screen in center field run chronological high points such as Scherzer’s no-hitter and Harper’s appearance at the All-Star Game. Then, September. The highlights were minimal and gap-filled from the start of the month to the end.

In the third inning, Harper walked to the plate as Frank Sinatra’s “The Best Is Yet To Come” played. It won’t be coming this year.


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