Bill Ladson

Consistent rotation highlights division-winning season

Strong lineup adds punch as Span, Rendon expertly set table

Consistent rotation highlights division-winning season

WASHINGTON -- The Nationals had a good enough team to go to the World Series, but they fell short by losing to the Giants in the National League Division Series.

The Nats fell off at the plate in the postseason, hitting .164 in the four games. Bryce Harper and Anthony Rendon were the only hitters who performed admirably in the series. Did the four-day layoff after the regular season hurt them? One may never know.

The regular season, on the other hand, was great for the Nationals. They won their second division title in three years, this time by 17 1/2 games over the Braves and Mets. It helped that they had a dominant rotation, led by Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann.

The Nats overcame major injuries to players such as Harper, Ryan Zimmerman and Wilson Ramos, but they managed to stay consistent at the plate. It helped they had Denard Span and Rendon at the top of the order.

Now it's back to square one. It will be interesting to see what they do this offseason. They have to overhaul their bench and add some relievers to the staff. Adam LaRoche and Asdrubal Cabrera will be free agents after the World Series. It's doubtful LaRoche will come back because Zimmerman is expected to play first base. They also have to make decisions on Zimmermann, right-hander Doug Fister, shortstop Ian Desmond and reliever Tyler Clippard. All four could be free agents after the 2015 season.

Knowing general manager Mike Rizzo, he is already working to help the Nationals get better in 2015.

Record: 96-66, first place in the NL East

Defining moment: The Nationals won the division title on Sept. 16 against the Braves, their biggest rival. In his first year as a manager, Matt Williams saw major players such as Harper, Zimmerman and Ramos miss significant time because of injuries. To win the NL East, the Nationals finally showed they could finally beat the Braves. After losing seven of the first eight games, Washington won seven out of the next 10 games. Clutch hitting was the reason for the turnaround for Washington.

What went right: The Nationals led the Major Leagues in ERA. Their rotation of Strasburg, Zimmermann, Fister, Gio Gonzalez and Tanner Roark won a combined 69 games. ... The bullpen was respectable. It started with Rafael Soriano as the closer, but Drew Storen ended up taking over the role. ... Washington was consistent on offense, with Span and Rendon as the table setters. Rendon led the team in runs scored and played solid defense at second and third base. Span led the team in hits, batting average and stolen bases. ... Desmond and LaRoche were the run producers, each driving in more than 90 runs.

What went wrong: They had a lot injuries, though they were able to overcome them. But a lot didn't go their way during the postseason. In Game 2 of the NLDS, Zimmermann retired 20 of his last 21 hitters he faced, using mostly fastballs. After walking Joe Panik in the ninth inning with two outs, Williams decided to take Zimmermann, at 100 pitches, out of the game in favor of closer Storen. Williams said what he did was nothing new. He has a tendency of taking out the starting pitcher whenever there is a sign of trouble. A lot of Nationals followers thought Williams made a mistake.

Storen then allowed a single to Buster Posey to put runners on first and second. Pablo Sandoval was the next hitter, and he doubled down the left-field line, scoring Panik, but the Nationals were able to throw Posey out at the plate, a call reviewed and ruled to stand by replay officials. The Nats ended up losing in 18 innings and were down, 0-2, in the series.

Biggest surprise: Roark battled for the fifth spot in the rotation during Spring Training and won the job over Taylor Jordan and Chris Young. Roark won 15 games and had an outstanding 2.85 ERA. His best game was April 26 against the Padres, when he pitched a three-hit shutout at Nationals Park. Before the game, the 27-year-old Roark had a bullpen session that made him believe he could possibly have the game of his life.

Roark's three-hit shutout

Hitter of the Year: Rendon was the Most Valuable Player of the team while hitting near the top of the lineup. Although he is one of the team's best players, what impressed bench coach Randy Knorr was Rendon's demeanor. No one can tell if Rendon was in a slump or on a hitting streak. To prove Knorr's point of view, take Rendon's at-bat against Braves closer Craig Kimbrel in the ninth inning on June 20 at Nationals Park. The Nationals were down by two runs. Rendon was already 0-for-4 on the day with a strikeout, and he was facing arguably the best closer in baseball. He was not intimidated by a guy who throws close to 100 miles an hour.

With Nate McLouth on first base after a leadoff walk, Rendon clocked a 2-1 pitch over the left-center field wall. At first, second-base umpire Mark Carlson ruled the ball was in play, and Rendon was credited with a double. Williams wanted the umpires to review the play, and he claimed the ball went over the wall for a home run. After a crew-chief review of 41 seconds, the play was overturned and Rendon was credited with a two-run homer.

Rendon's two-run homer

Pitcher of the Year: Right-hander Dan Haren was inconsistent in 2013, so the Nationals decided to go in a new direction and acquired Fister from the Tigers for infielder Steve Lombardozzi and pitchers Ian Krol and Robbie Ray. The trade turned out to be a steal for the Nationals. Even though his season didn't start until May because of a lat strain, Fister was the team leader in wins and starter's ERA.

Rookie of the Year: Right-hander Aaron Barrett was an integral part of the Nationals' bullpen. He able to pitch anywhere from the sixth to the eighth inning. Barrett hit a rough patch in July and was sent to the Minor Leagues in August. He spent a month with Triple-A Syracuse, where he worked on his throwing motion and received some rest. When Barrett returned to the big leagues in September, he had a new weapon in a changeup, especially against left-handers. After returning to the Majors, Barrett didn't allow an earned run in his final seven innings of the regular season.

Bill Ladson is a reporter for and writes an MLBlog, All Nats All the time. He also could be found on Twitter @WashingNats. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.