- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 9, 2020

Our latest entry in our series “Overlooked” reflects back on the 2014 Washington Nationals — everything that went right in the regular season and so, so wrong in the playoffs.

The Nationals haven’t been in town long enough to have many “overlooked” seasons in Washington. But in light of their first World Series victory, which they’ll launch their defense of later this month in an unusual 60-game season, it’s worth revisiting one of the many Nationals teams that fell short of championship-level expectations.

The year was 2014, and the Nationals’ circumstances seemed perfect for a run at a title. They had a healthy Stephen Strasburg, solid pitchers backing him up and an experienced lineup. Bryce Harper, just 21, was about to enter his prime. The Strasburg-less 2012 playoff defeat still stung, but there was no reason to believe the franchise was doomed to choke in the playoffs year after year.

So when the Nationals were eliminated early that fall, players couldn’t help but feel like they blew their best opportunity yet to make a World Series run.

“The window isn’t closed,” Ian Desmond said at the time, “but it is closing.”

Desmond didn’t have the benefit of a crystal ball to show how the Nationals would eventually get over the hump in 2019, and how drastically different that roster would look. Nevertheless, there’s a reason MASN recently ranked the 2014 Nationals as the organization’s best team to wither away a realistic shot to win the World Series.

In 2013, Sports Illustrated picked the Nationals to win the championship in its baseball preview issue — and Washington responded by missing the playoffs altogether. That didn’t matter when 2014 rolled around. Sports Illustrated picked the Nationals again, an example of just how confident the baseball world was in their talent.

They got off to a somewhat lukewarm start; having someone new in charge — first-year manager Matt Williams — might have contributed to that. It didn’t help matters that Harper tore a ligament in his thumb and missed a few months.

But Harper was still a year away from his monster season that earned him the 2015 National League MVP. This lineup had several threatening batters rather than one superstar. A young Anthony Rendon — remember him? — led the team in slugging percentage at .473. Rendon, Desmond and Adam LaRoche all hit more than 20 home runs and the three of them plus Jayson Werth each surpassed 80 RBI.

It was around this time that year that the Nationals started to break free from the pack. A four-game winning streak in July gave Washington a division lead it would never relinquish. But a 10-win streak in August — featuring sweeps of the Mets, Pirates and Diamondbacks and no fewer than five walk-off victories — likely convinced many watching that this team was World Series-bound.

Jordan Zimmermann helped the Nationals finish the regular season off with a bang, tossing a no-hitter to beat the Marlins in the finale, so it appeared their pitching was also hot as October arrived.

None of this, however, impressed Tim Hudson.

The San Francisco Giants’ ace told the Washington Post in no uncertain terms what he thought of the Nationals’ toughness when the two teams were paired up in the NL Divisional Series.

“‘They have some great pitching. But come playoff time, talent can take you a long ways, but what do you have between your legs?” Hudson said. “That’s going to take you real far. And I think we’ve got a group in here that really has some of that.”

Fans know what happened next. The one-run Game 1 loss, despite a healthy Harper’s late home run that nearly sparked a full comeback. The infamous Drew Storen meltdown in Game 2 after Williams pulled a dominant Zimmermann off the mound in the ninth. The 18-inning affair that ensued, finally claimed by San Francisco with a solo home run by Brandon Belt.

After six hours and 23 minutes of low-scoring baseball that night, all the Nationals had to show for their efforts was a 2-0 series deficit.

Even though Harper shifted into superstar mode and the Nationals took Game 3 in San Francisco, Game 4 was the disappointing capper. Aaron Barrett’s bases-loaded wild pitch let the Giants take the lead for good in the seventh, and the Nationals again lost their first-round playoff series.

The 96-66 regular season record, all the expectations in the world — shattered, gone in less than a week. Fans were stunned. The players themselves weren’t feeling much better.

“I wish we could have a redo on this whole series,” LaRoche said. “I feel like we didn’t see the team over the last few days that we have for six months.”

On Thursday, not long after he received his 2019 World Series ring, Strasburg was asked to reflect on the agony the Nationals had gone through before reaching the sport’s pinnacle.

“There was definitely some heartbreak for this franchise in the past,” Strasburg said. “But I think the greatest thing about this organization is that they continue to bring in great talent, great players, great coaches, and we’ve really had just a good nucleus and a good group of young guys constantly coming up every few years and contributing.”

Desmond was wrong about the window closing. It just took five more years — and a new era of Nationals baseball — to get over the hump.

“Winning last year was great, but I think a lot of the guys that were part of the failures or the disappointment in past postseasons weren’t even really on the team,” Strasburg said. “So it was kind of like a fresh start.”

• Adam Zielonka can be reached at azielonka@washingtontimes.com.

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