In those immediate moments after elimination, once the reality sets in and everyone understands the season has just ended, it’s impossible not to start wondering about the future. And for two of the most prominent members of the Nationals, the future is awfully cloudy in the wake of Thursday night’s Game 5 loss to the Cubs.
Did Dusty Baker just manage his last game for the Nats (or for anyone)? Did Jayson Werth just play his last game for the Nats (or for anyone)?
It’ll be a little while until we know the answer to either question. But make no mistake, each question was on more than a few minds inside a demoralized clubhouse following this latest loss in the National League Division Series.
Start with Baker, whose two-year contract is set to expire at the end of the month. Even though his situation remained unresolved all season, all parties involved insisted all along they wanted and expected to get a new deal done.
“We talk every day, and we’re both confident that he’ll be back with us, but we haven’t had any conversations about it,” general manager Mike Rizzo said before the start of the NLDS. “And we will not do so until we finalize this season.”
The sense throughout was that the result of this series would have little-to-no bearing on Baker’s fate. But given the way this five-game drama played out, it will have to at least be part of the thought process.
Baker left himself open to scrutiny several times during the NLDS. He stuck with a slumping Werth for all five games (though the veteran left fielder did reach base four times in Thursday’s loss). His bullpen management in Game 3 - using Sammy Solís, Brandon Kintzler and Oliver Pérez, but not Ryan Madson or Sean Doolittle - helped contribute to an agonizing 2-1 loss. And while he was hardly the only one at fault, his initial explanation Tuesday of why the club planned to start Tanner Roark instead of Stephen Strasburg in Game 4 helped cause an 18-hour firestorm in which the Nationals organization was raked over the coals by the rest of the baseball world.
Those were the negatives. There have been far more positives over the last two seasons, a point made by just about every player who was asked about their 68-year-old skipper after Thursday’s loss.
“I think Dusty’s great,” first baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. “The whole coaching staff. Those guys worked their butt off to get us ready. They do such a good job of making sure they relate to us. That’s a great group of guys in there. They’re just as much deserving of the success we’ve had as we are. They probably work harder than us, to be honest with you. So it’s a pleasure to be part of that staff. I think everyone in this room would love to have them back.”
Plenty of players would love to have Werth back in 2018 as well, but few expect that to happen. The seventh and final year of the outfielder’s $126 million contract turned this season into a bit of a farewell tour for one of the most popular players in club history.
Werth showed off a more sentimental side to his personality this year, taking time to soak in moments down the stretch. And as he stood before reporters and photographers in front of his locker late Thursday night, he tried to keep himself from getting choked up while all but acknowledging this was his final game with the Nationals.
“This one’s tough,” he said. “I love these guys. I love this team. To think that it’s over right now is tough to swallow.
“I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished here, obviously. This place has come a long way in seven years. No regrets. We gave it all we had. I know I gave everything I had, left it all out there. I’m proud to call myself a National. Before I came here, I don’t know if anybody would’ve said that. Even so, this one’s tough to take. We had opportunities and you just still think, man, you can’t believe it’s over.”
This was not the season Werth had in mind. He hit only .226 with a .715 OPS that was his worst since he played for the Dodgers in 2005. He missed three months with a left foot injury, limiting him to only 70 total games. And until reaching base four times in six plate appearances Thursday, he was 1-for-14 in the NLDS.
Werth also was distraught over the line drive he misplayed in the sixth inning, a ball he said he lost in the lights that allowed the Cubs to add a key insurance run in what ultimately wound up a one-run loss.
It was an unceremonious conclusion to Werth’s seven years in Washington, and it leaves him now facing an uncertain future. Werth, who turns 39 in May, has consistently said he believes he can play several more seasons. But it remains to be seen what kind of market develops for him, and it remains to be seen what kind of contract he’s willing to accept and what kind of team he’s willing to play for at this stage of his career.
Regardless, Werth made it clear he’ll forever feel a stronger connection with the Nationals than any other franchise he played for in the past or in the future.
“We’ve accomplished a lot in seven years,” he said. “This group of guys, these are like brothers. This is family. This is home. I don’t know what the future holds. I haven’t given it much thought at any point this season. I was just really focused on the task at hand. You give everything you’ve got to an organization, to a franchise, to your teammates. It’s tough.”