Every season, college basketball teams dream of earning a bid in the NCAA tournament. For teams that make it to the big dance every year, it becomes an advantage the next season because the team has extra practices and extra games that 250 other teams don’t get to benefit from. A lot of young players get to play in those extra games - incredibly meaningful games - and they gain experience they would have no other way of receiving if their team did not make it to the postseason.
Perennial playoff teams in the NFL, like the New England Patriots, get to play extra games in the postseason. All of those extra practices are an advantage for them as they look ahead to the next season, regardless of how they finish the postseason. Twenty other NFL teams do not get that benefit and must wait for organized team activities the next spring.
The same can hold true for baseball, where non-playoff teams wrap up play on Oct. 1 this season. But the Nationals are different. A good number of young players - top prospects, players from Double-A or Triple-A - are getting a chance to play in meaningful September games for the Nats. Some might even be invited to play in the postseason.
In Sunday’s 3-2 win over the Phillies, the Nationals starting lineup consisted of several young players: Adrián Sanchez, Wilmer Difo, Victor Robles, Andrew Stevenson, Pedro Severino and Rafael Bautista. Catcher Raudy Read has played in six games since Sept. 3.
Manager Dusty Baker said the opportunity for these young players and top prospects to play for the Nationals in September - and, more importantly, contribute to a first-place team that clinched the division with them not only here, but playing - is of immeasurable value.
“I mean, that’s a good point because they see how things are supposed to be versus how they’ve heard supposed to be,” Baker said. “They see how guys go about their business. They get the feeling of winning. That’s why I’m glad all those young guys were in the lineup that last day and ... that’s a memory they will have for the rest of their lives.
“They hear about what you’re there for, and people tell them what the quest is about, but to actually get there and see it, and feel it and be a part of it, yeah, that’s a big advantage to have big brother pass it down to little brother. I’m glad they’re here and I’m glad they are a part of it.”
Stevenson spoke about how the “big brothers” that Baker references on the team - veteran players like Jayson Werth, Ryan Zimmerman and Daniel Murphy - welcomed the young players to the club throughout the season, helping them to focus on playing and not worry about how they would fit in.
That camaraderie and respect for each member of the team builds a bond that could go a long way in securing the Nationals a strong clubhouse culture for seasons to come, regardless of this season’s outcome. That’s why four playoff berths in the last six seasons - including this most recent back-to-back run - is emblematic of that winning culture president of baseball operations and general manager Mike Rizzo has work so diligently to implement.