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Oct 17

It was a Great Run

Notes on the past season.

After the game we received an email from our friend Dave, an avid Nationals fan. Dave writing, “They came up short but it was a hell of a run. I’m sad but never really expected it this year. Go Nats 2013.”

It was a great run, no doubt about that. An amazing 98 wins the NL East title and 149 days in first place. By comparison the 1924 Senators, the gold standard for DC baseball, spent 55 days and the strong 1933 club 104 days. So why the angst and morning after agony. Part of it is the nature of the game, a slow build-up over the course of the season. Then a short playoff series and finally nine innings with a nail biting finish where the difference of a win or loss can be a pitch an inch off the plate or a bad bounce.

Part of it is the expectations that kept rising during the season. Remember when the Nationals went to Boston for what was a critical series. Or when they brought John Lannan back in what some thought was a hopeless start. It was a dramatic awe-inspiring season that saw the Nationals end up with an incredible 18 game improvement from 2011.

Of course there were the injuries and this, to me anyway, was the major story of the 2012 campaign. Few teams even the Phillies had to deal with the injuries that dogged the Nationals. It forced the management to bring Bryce Harper up early. Any doubts about his ability quickly disappeared and after a slump he became one of the best hitters on the team. It also gave “The Shark,” Tyler Moore and “Lombo” and others playing time and they made the most of the opportunity. Still I wondered how healthy Ryan Zimmerman, Michael Morse, Ian Desmond and others really were.

The team really hit its stride in July and August, maintaining a winning percentage of .655, winning 36 games and losing just 18 games.

In September with the Braves mounting a strong run for the National East title the Nationals were a creditable 16-12. The team began to hit home runs, run productive was good but in our opinion less emphasis seemed to be placed on manufacturing runs. While the offense was doing well, runs allowed had soared to 125 for the month, the highest of the season, or 4.46 a game, a clear sign that something was not right.

Using statistics from ESPN for the month of September the positive numbers posted by Drew Storen, Christian Garcia, Zack Duke and Gio Gonzalez stand out. But those by Sean Burnett, Tyler Clippard, Edwin Jackson and Ryan Mattheus give pause for concern, especially the 2.53 WHIP by Burnett. Jackson made five starts and pitched just 25 innings. Clippard’s ERA was 8.03. Despite posting an ERA of 4.91, Mike Gonzalez had a respectable WHIP of 1.09. When viewed with the great numbers out of the bullpen for most of the season it should have been a note of concern for the team’s management.

The Strasburg shutdown has and will continue to generate headlines. For a few it is an easy way to get visibility. Which for some in the media seems to be the way to go instead of trying to write a good column. In September Strasburg’s numbers were not good, an ERA of 5.00 although Jordan Zimmerman’s was 4.41. Compared to their August numbers it was a big drop for Strasburg although they were roughly the same for Zimmerman. Was he just tired or worried about the shut down. Since he had all season to deal with the issue I think the cause may have been the work load.

The decision to win now has merit, but so too does the need to run the organization in such a manner as to insure the health and continued success of the players. Which brings me to Ryan Zimmerman and a connection that should be made. If it was necessary to protect Strasburg’s arm why was it not necessary to keep Zimmerman healthy or other players for that matter. Having bad knees and forced to have cortisone shots we know there are problems associated with them, especially having too many shoots in too short a time frame. To me it seems odd that the team allowed Ryan Zimmerman to continue playing despite the obvious medical issues.

So it was a great run but the sour taste of the loss to the Cardinals still lingers. For baseball fans in the District this is new territory. The expectations are that Washington will be in the hunt again in 2013 and no reason to doubt that. But the playoff structure is a very odd duck. A team on a hot streak can run the table. The heroes of the fall classic may well be a bench player, and a great player may come up short, anything can happen. The best team may not necessarily win.

If we look back to Washington’s post season experience this becomes obvious. In 1924 the Senators faced a strong New York team under the able leadership of John McGraw. In eighth inning of game seven, a routine ground ball to third which hit a pebble and took a bad hop over Giants third baseman Freddie Lindstrom allowing Washington to tie the game. In the twelfth inning with one out, and runners on first and second, a ground ball is hit to Lindstrom, and again the ball takes a bad hop, Nationals win. So was Lindstrom a loser? He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1976.

In the 1925 World Series against the Pirates, the Senators are up 3–1. Pittsburgh takes the next two games forcing a game seven. The “Big Train” is on the mound. In the seventh inning the Nats are holding on to a two run lead. But Roger Peckinpaugh, a tough as nails shortstop, makes errors in this and the next inning and the Pirates end up scoring four unearned runs and win the game and series. Today Peckinpaugh’s errors would be played on rotation on ESPN for at least a week and he would be the goat. But he had a great year for Washington and in a league loaded with talented players would was League MVP. Although to be fair weather conditions were horrible and they even burned gasoline on the infield to dry it off!

In 1933 the Senators lost to the New York Giants in five games. The last two games at home in extra innings and were lost by one run.

So it goes, for all the success a team might have during the course of a season, a muff or a pebble can decide a contest in the playoffs. Welcome to post season baseball. Like our friend Dave, said, it was a great run,

Finally, it goes without saying that Washington is a young team. They were tested in their first post season and found wanting. Now they are the NL East champs and the landscape has changed dramatically. They will be tested like never before.