Early exits from postseason in 2012, '14 and '16 don't weigh on Washington
By Terence Moore
So you're the Nationals, and you've known for a while you'll play in the postseason and you've struggled forever during the first round. But you're still involved with that pesky thing called the regular season.
What's your mindset regarding now and later?
Nationals center fielder Michael A. Taylor thought about the question earlier this week, smiled and then said, "We didn't come out and make any T-shirts or anything like that in Spring Training, but everybody's on the same page. Trying to reach the playoffs and to do well -- I think that's every team's goal -- to play a long season, and to get to the World Series and to win the whole thing."
First things first, though, especially for another loaded Washington team with the hitting, the pitching, the manager . . .
And the memories. Oh, the memories.
Since the Expos moved to Washington D.C. from Montreal before the 2005 season to become the Nationals, the franchise has reached the postseason three times, all since 2012. Each of those times, the Nationals have lost in the National League Division Series after grabbing the NL East smoothly enough to give you the feeling they were at least NL Championship Series-bound, or better. It didn't happen any of those times. Instead, there was disappointment, but only with an asterisk.
In 2012, the Nats couldn't survive the NL Wild Card Cardinals, but they were operating without stud pitcher Stephen Strasburg. Two years later, they lost to another NL Wild Card team in the Giants, but that was no disgrace since San Francisco sprinted all the way to a World Series championship. Then came last year's defeat for Washington, in a fifth and decisive NLDS game that was virtually a tossup, since the opponent involved an equally solid Dodgers bunch.
Still, between now and the opener of the NLDS presented by T-Mobile at home next Friday against the Cubs (broadcast on TBS, time TBD), you wonder if the Nationals are doing a bunch of stuff to forget about the last time they didn't advance out of the first round, and the time before that and the time before that.
"Everybody in the postseason wants to make the World Series, which means you have to make it past the first round. But to me, I don't really buy into it that it's something we're always thinking about," Nationals shortstop Trea Turner said. "You've got new players every year. That means you've got different guys going for the same goal. You also have different guys on other teams."
That's true, and let's discuss just the Nationals part of Turner's observations, and remember this: He was around only during Washington's NLDS against the Dodgers. In fact, Bryce Harper, Jayson Werth, Ryan Zimmerman and Strasburg are the sole players who graced the Nationals' roster for all three of those postseason appearances in franchise history.
There are other things to consider here, and they're all at least good for the Nationals. This will be the first time they'll have both otherworldly pitcher Max Scherzer and Strasburg throwing in the same postseason. They will be followed in the rotation by Gio Gonzalez and Tanner Roark to give the Nationals a fabulous starting group for October. In contrast, the Cubs are slightly a mess along those lines. Ace Jake Arrieta recently missed a couple of weeks due to a hamstring injury, Jon Lester is trying to smooth out a rocky season and John Lackey is retiring after becoming the hitter's best friend at times.
With accomplished manager Dusty Baker leading the way after taking four teams to the postseason, nobody in the Major Leagues tops the Nationals' 98 quality starts, and they're sixth in team ERA at 3.85. They've also been efficient enough at the plate (.265 for fourth) and on the bases (105 for fifth) to score baseball's fifth-highest number of runs with 804.
In addition, the Nationals are as healthy as they've been this season. They're still without sparkplug Adam Eaton, who suffered a season-ending knee injury in April, but Harper returned this week (.324 batting average, 29 home runs and 87 RBIs) after missing 42 games with his knee injury. As for others who were missing for various reasons this year -- Strasburg, Scherzer, Werth, Taylor and Turner -- they're back to help a team that prospered enough despite those injuries to take a 96-63 record into their games this weekend against the Pirates to end the regular season.
Surely the Nationals are thinking about the postseason.
"You can scout yourself a little bit, and you start thinking about what other teams have done to you to have success," Turner said. "For me at the plate, it's about getting in the box and trying to get the timing down, but in the postseason, you have to be able to react. You also have to have things go your way, because you can only prepare on offense so much. On defense, it's the same thing. You can look at scouting reports and see where guys hit balls, and then you can think about where you're going to position yourself. You can get that rhythm down, trying to be consistent.
"In the end, preparation is key, but you still have to make the plays. And even though you can learn a little bit now, at the same time, I don't think you really know what they're going to do to you until you get into those games. "
Just ask the Nationals.
Terence Moore is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.