Marty Niland: Dealing with disappointment is familiar territory for Nats fans

The 2018 season is a huge disappointment to most Nationals fans, many of whom believed the team had the potential to win an unprecedented third straight National League East championship and finally win a postseason series.

But is this really the most disappointing season the Nationals have been through since moving to Washington in 2005? It’s certainly not the first letdown Nats fans have been through. There have been other seasons that have been at least this disappointing, and seasons in which the Nats have finished farther behind the eventual division winner than they likely will this season.

The first, and perhaps the biggest letdown season for Nats fans came in 2013. Still a young team, guided by a Hall of Fame-caliber manager in Davey Johnson, the Nats were riding the high of a surprise division title in 2012 and the shock of a dramatic loss to the Cardinals in the Division Series. Johnson set expectations high for the year by predicting “World Series or bust.” The team responded by playing tense and tight for much of the season and produced the latter.

The Nats spent all but the first week of the season chasing Atlanta, but never catching the Braves, who maintained a division lead of at least five games after June 22. The offense, prolific with 731 runs in 2012, sank to 656 the next season as injuries shook the lineup.

Reigning Rookie of the Year Bryce Harper, catcher Wilson Ramos and pitcher Stephen Strasburg all spent significant time on the disabled list. Ryan Zimmerman, still playing third base, developed a shoulder problem that kept him from throwing accurately. The Nats had also cast off popular slugger Michael Morse, and two new left-handed hitters, Adam LaRoche and Denard Span, had subpar seasons.

The Nats were below .500 at 63-64 as late as Aug. 22, but went 23-13 afterward to finish 86-76, 10 games behind Atlanta. That offseason brought several changes, including the hiring of Matt Williams as manager, a trade for pitcher Doug Fister and the rebuilding of the bullpen.

The team returned to the top of the division in 2014, but could not stay there for consecutive seasons. Despite an MVP year from Harper in 2015, that season was another big letdown. The the Nats duked it out with the Mets for most of the spring and early summer, then the Mets blew past them in early August by sweeping a series in New York, just after acquiring Yoenis C├ęspedes at the trade deadline.

The Nats had a chance to get back in the race Labor Day weekend, but the Mets came back from six-run deficits two games in a row, en route to another sweep, this time at Nationals Park. The season unraveled quickly after that, and the Nats had to win four of their last five games to finish 83-79, seven games behind the Mets.

Max Scherzer joined Jordan Zimmermann in the rotation, but the back end was inconsistent, and Tanner Roark never got the knack of coming out of the bullpen.

Relief pitching turned out to be the team’s biggest weakness, despite the addition of Jonathan Papelbon at the trade deadline. Deposed closer Drew Storen never adjusted to the setup role, and after giving up key runs in the last two games of the Labor Day weekend series against the Mets, slammed his hand in a locker and never pitched for the Nats again. Papelbon, of course, would save seven games in 22 appearances with the Nats before brawling with Harper in the dugout on Sept. 27, after the Nats had been eliminated. The Nats would release “The D.C. Strangler” the following August.

That offseason brought more change, including the hiring of Dusty Baker as manager, the signing of Daniel Murphy as a free agent and more new faces in the bullpen. The team also revamped its medical staff and procedures.

Change is the inevitable result of failing to meet expectations, and no matter where the 2018 ranks on your list, this offseason will likely see the most of them all. The Nationals lineup, overall, looks to be younger than it has been since 2012, and, yes, the majority of the bullpen will likely be remade again. Unlike the last two times they missed the postseason, there will likely be continuity at manager.

We may get a clue in the last weeks of this season about whether the next version of the Nats can set high expectations for themselves.

Marty Niland blogs about the Nationals for D.C. Baseball History. Follow him on Twitter: @martyball98. His thoughts on the Nationals will appear here 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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