Over the last three years, the Nationals have won 280 regular season games, most in the major leagues during that time.
In 2012, they picked up 98 wins, the most in the game, and earned their first National League East title since baseball returned to D.C. in 2005. In 2013, even in a year that was considered a bust in Davey Johnson’s “World Series or bust” campaign, the Nats still earned 86 wins, sixth-best in the NL and far from anything worth being ashamed of in the grand scheme of things.
Then this year, the Nats fought through injuries and a bit of a slow start to record 96 wins, second-most in baseball and most in the NL.
The regular season success has certainly been there, and that shouldn’t be taken for granted or looked past. How many organizations out there these days would kill for 280 wins and two division titles in a three-year span?
The question, however, is how these last three seasons should be viewed in the larger picture. Yes, the Nats have turned their organization around significantly in the last handful of years, going from a team that lost 298 games from 2008-2010 to a team that now expects a postseason berth. But despite the regular season win totals and the NL East Champions flags that will hang at Nats Park, the Nationals have yet to advance out of the Division Series, yet to pick up their first series win in the postseason.
Does the regular season success stand on its own? Or do the Nationals need to win a postseason series, do they need to advance in the playoffs in order to validate all that’s been done in the last few years?
“A little bit of both,” reliever Tyler Clippard said prior to the Game 4 loss. “You know, obviously three years of having a cumulative record of the best record in the game is something. But at the end of the day, we play this game to win world championships. I think everybody does. That’s why we put the uniform on.”
“I think you’re ultimately judged on how many championships you win,” said manager Matt Williams, who noted that since he has only been here for one year, he can’t really speak to the prior two seasons. “That’s ultimately how you’ll be judged as a team or an organization or what have you. And it’s important for us to continue to play well and be consistent, and I think that would probably speak to the reason that there’s been so many games won - consistency.
“Ultimately it gets down to can you win a championship, and that’s what we’re trying to do. And we’ll be judged accordingly.”
After Tuesday night’s Game 4 loss in San Francisco, ending the Nationals’ season, players stood in the clubhouse unsure how exactly to react to what had just happened.
They entered this postseason hopeful that the experience that they had gained in 2012 would benefit them this time around, that it would play a factor on the field. In the end, that experience didn’t end up factoring in as much as they had hoped.
“The only real way you learn to play in October is to do it,” closer Drew Storen said. “So for us, you’ve got to learn from it and try to do it again next year.”
It all can come to an end so quickly in professional sports in the postseason. You grind for six months - nearly eight, if you count spring training - to try and find a way to qualify for the playoffs. Then, if you’re lucky enough to get there, it can be over before you know it.
The Nationals have had success with the grind. They’ve put together deep rosters, gotten strong pitching performances and had balanced production from the lineup throughout the regular season. Now they need to find a way to take the next step.
“It’s obviously really frustrating right now, but we put ourselves in a position, obviously,” first baseman Adam LaRoche said. “And there’s a lot of teams that can’t say that. We were here. (But) it hurts to get knocked out in the first round again.”
“It’ll take a few days, maybe a couple weeks to look back on the season, because it ended so quickly,” reliever Jerry Blevins said. “But we’re a really good team. We had a goal in mind, and this wasn’t it. So it’s back to the drawing board. Learn from this series, learn the things you have to do and go forward.”