Dave Nichols: Disappointing campaign ends on hopeful note

Well, here we are. The final week of the 2013 regular season. It’s been a fascinating but ultimately disappointing season. Unless the Nationals manage to win out this week and get an extraordinarily well-timed losing streak by either the Reds or Pirates, the Nats’ season will come to an end without reaching the playoffs.

It’s funny, if the Nats had finished a couple of games out of the playoffs last season as they will this one, it would not have been particularly disappointing. Rather, it would have felt like the Nats were taking their natural progression toward everyone’s ultimate expectations for them, and the 2013 season would have been the year the Nats finally brought postseason play back to the District.

But it didn’t work out that way. They won 98 games in 2012, exceeding even the most ardent supporter’s expectations, winning the National League East along the way. Then in the playoffs, they came within one strike - to two different batters - of advancing to the National League Championship Series. So most folks thought the 2013 season would bring a coronation.

Instead, the Nats slogged through the first two-thirds of the season mired in mediocrity. After being swept by Atlanta at home in the first week of August, the Nats were six games below .500 at 54-60. But they won their next five games, and just kept winning. Since Aug. 9 (game 115 of the season), the Nats are 36-20, a .642 winning percentage - a 104-win pace over the course of a full schedule. That’s just about where many pundits thought the Nats would end up this season.

So which team are they? The one that played at a 76-win pace through Aug. 9 or the championship caliber team they appeared to be the rest of the way out?

They are both, obviously. Where did they go wrong early? What was the difference? Well, they got healthy to start with. Bryce Harper, Jayson Werth and Wilson Ramos all returned from injury. No one likes to use injuries as excuses, but that’s a third of your everyday lineup on the shelf, forcing inadequate backups into way too many at bats.

What else? They finally disabled and then demoted Danny Espinosa and his .158/.193/.272 slash line and called up Anthony Rendon, who looks more and more like an everyday second baseman. And Dan Haren figured some things out after a trip to the disabled list.

Lastly, Ryan Zimmerman regained his power stroke. Zimmerman hit a home run that night on Aug. 9. In the 42 games since, all he’s done is hit .311/.383/.591 with 14 home runs (including one in Sunday’s day game) and 22 RBIs, primarily out of the two-hole. It’s been a remarkable, and much welcomed, turnaround for the face of the franchise, who was hitting .269/.340/.427 before he got hot.

This year has been unfulfilling. Davey Johnson is not going out the way he envisioned when he made his “World Series or bust” comment during spring training. But in the last 50 games or so of the season, we have seen the very same Nats team that won 98 games last year, or maybe even a little bit better. That’s what everyone expected the entire season.

I don’t envision general manager Mike Rizzo is going to clean house in the offseason. Sure, needs to hire a new manager. He’ll find a veteran pitcher to replace Haren in the rotation. He’ll probably find a veteran left-handed reliever for high-leverage appearances. He’ll add a piece or two to his bench. And he needs to figure out, once and for all, what’s wrong with Espinosa.

But the entirely of the batting order that has averaged 5.26 runs per game since Aug. 9 will return, as will the heart of his rotation - three All-Stars in the prime of their careers.

Maybe the Nats are just doing things out of order, but Nats fans shouldn’t despair for next season. All the ingredients are still there and the recipe is still the same. It just needs a little more time.

Dave Nichols is editor-in-chief of District Sports Page and co-hosts the “Nats Nightly” Internet radio show. Read Nichols’ Nationals observations as part of MASNsports.com’s season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our site. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.

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