Marty Niland: Strong finish could set Nats up for future, as it did in 2011

With wins in seven of their last nine games and three straight series victories under their belts, the Nationals seem determined to close out the 2018 season on a high note and set the tone for a winning 2019.

It brings to mind the 2011 Nats season, when they won 14 of their last 17 games and eight of their last 10 to finish with their best record since 2005 at 80-81. Keep in mind that this was a team that had never finished with a winning record since moving to Washington and was a year removed from a 93-loss season, with two straight 100-plus loss seasons coming before that.

In other words, the Nats had nothing to lose when they began to build the foundation of their future success by signing free agent outfielder Jayson Werth to a seven-year, $126 million contract and a two-year, $15 million deal with slugging first baseman Adam LaRoche.

Neither actually paid early dividends on the field that season, with Werth struggling to a batting average in the .220s until the end of August and LaRoche’s season ending in May due to a torn labrum. Both, however, became cornerstones of a team that would win the National League East or contend for years to come.

In the meantime, new stars emerged. Michael Morse, who had excelled as a part-time outfielder the year before, took over at first base and hit career highs with .303/.360/.550, 31 homers and 95 RBIs. Wilson Ramos became the everyday catcher and showed his potential when healthy, hitting .267/.334/.435 with 15 homers. Danny Espinosa broke out at second base, turning 101 double plays and hitting 21 homers.

On the mound, it was a year of transition. Veterans Livan Hernandez, Jason Marquis and John Lannan anchored the rotation, but only Marquis could manage a winning record, and he was traded to Arizona at the non-waiver deadline. Ross Detwiler emerged as a reliable starter late in the season, and Tommy Milone and Brad Peacock were strong in the September stretch run.

Stephen Strasburg returned from Tommy John surgery in September. He pitched in five games, going 1-1 with a 1.50 ERA and 24 strikeouts in 24 innings.

In the bullpen, Drew Storen established himself as the team’s closer and Tyler Clippard was already known as a valuable setup man.

The team was slow out of the gate, as usual, and fell seven games under .500 in mid May and nine under in the midst of an early-June visit to the West Coast. But then they ran off seven wins in a row, and after a loss to Baltimore, won three more to get above .500 at 38-37 on June 21.

But amid the celebration of the win that got them there, a 1-0 walk-off victory over Seattle, came the shocking announcement that manager Jim Riggleman had resigned. Upset with contract negotiations, Riggleman demanded a new deal for 2012, or else, and the team let him walk. Bench Coach John McLaren led the team to a pair of wins in a three-game series in Chicago before veteran skipper Davey Johnson took over for the rest of the season.

The team took time to adjust to Johnson, and got back to .500 a couple of times before losing streaks dragged them back down. After a six-game skid in August, they were 62-70, and they had already been eliminated from the NL East race by the time they hit their season low at 66-77 on Sept. 10. Their season-ending run included four wins over the New York Mets, the team they passed for third place in the standings, three over the Marlins to help the Nats pull away from them and four over the division champion Phillies.

Let’s fast forward to 2018, when the Nats actually find themselves in better circumstances, still mathematically alive in the division and wild card races and already above .500 with two weeks to play. With all but their final three games against non-contending teams, the Nats are in good position to finish the season with a winning mark.

As to where this team can go from here, they may also be ahead of the 2011 team as it headed into 2012, with established starters at three infield positions, three rotation spots and at least a closer in the bullpen.

We have witnessed the emergence of an offensive star in rookie Juan Soto and the center fielder of the future in Victor Robles. On the mound, Jefry Rodriguez has emerged as a potentially reliable starter or middle reliever.

As they’ve done in previous offseasons, the Nats will certainly make moves to address their shortcomings. If they’re successful, the Nats may surprise as many people in 2019 as they did in 2012, when they parlayed that strong finish in 2011 into the team’s first division championship in Washington and the city’s first postseason since 1933.

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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