MLB: Anatomy of Washington Nationals’ Fall From Grace

Division Series - Washington Nationals v San Francisco Giants - Game Four
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

It has been a rough year for favorites in the 2014 MLB postseason. If the Oakland A’s losing to Kansas City with Jon Lester on the hill didn’t baffle anyone, two losses by Clayton Kershaw in the Dodgers’ quick demise had to make the most astute odds makers scratch their heads. The recurring theme of this year’s MLB playoffs has been the near-certain exit of any team “destined” for the World Series. Here is a look at the fall of the Washington Nationals, the consensus favorites of MLB experts everywhere, following their NLDS exit.

Three one-run ALDS losses

After a brilliant, 96-win regular season, the Nationals entered the playoffs as the NL’s top seed with home-field advantage guaranteed. That mattered little as the San Francisco Giants dispatched them in four games in the NLDS. Though the Nats seemed to be playing from behind most of the series, each of Washington’s three losses were all one-run affairs, including the 18-inning marathon that made postseason history.

Since the pitching staff allowed just 9 runs in 45 IP, it would be hard to fault anyone in the rotation or bullpen. In fact, the pitching was so good the offense’s meager run support was enough to win two of the four ball games. Bryce Harper, for his part, played up to a superstar billing on the big stage. Despite their fielding and pitching mishaps, pinning the Nationals’ mistakes in the NLDS on inexperience may be over-simplifying, as the seasoned Giants made a number of blunders of their own. However, it is fair to ask why Washington Manager Matt Williams put some players in those situations.

The case against Matt Williams

Aside from his overblown rant against members of the media in August, Matt Williams had a very good inaugural season as skipper of the Nationals. His judgment did seem to fail him when it mattered most, however. In Game Two of the NLDS (the Nats already down 1-0 in the series), Williams pulled Jordan Zimmerman with two outs in the bottom of the ninth after issuing a walk. Having allowed just three hits prior to the walk and having 100 pitches under his belt, one could make a strong case a dominant Zimmerman was the man to finish the job.

Division Series - Washington Nationals v San Francisco Giants - Game Four
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Of course, Williams went to Drew Storen in the bullpen, the Giants tied the game, and the 18-inning affair was made possible. Later on in the same game, Williams made the ill-advised decision to “back up” Asdrubal Cabrera after he was ejected for arguing a called third strike in extra innings. With Cabrera already tossed, it was a terrible moment for Williams to exit the game — it’s, you know, extra innings in the playoffs — but there Williams went. The final blow came later, eliminating the Nationals’ home-field advantage, which in baseball is a concrete advantage in extra-inning contests. (When the home team scores, the game is over.)

In the fourth and deciding game, Williams called on Yankees castoff Matt Thornton with Washington’s season on the line. He followed that by bringing in Aaron Barrett, who walked and wild-pitched the Nats to a deficit they never overcame. Better arsm were in the bullpen, Stephen Strasburg among them. These decisions were undeniably poor, especially considering Bryce Harper had tied the game on an epic home run two innings prior. Williams seemed to have more jitters than his ball club, and looking forward to next year should involve rethinking his in-game strategy.

Otherwise, Washington barely scored and lost by one run in three losses to a quality opponent. A few wild pitches or alternate Williams decisions and things could have been different. In a short division series, there is no margin for error. With a young team watching three straight seasons end in disappointment, the championship window is beginning to close. Expect the organization to go all in for the 2015 season.