WASHINGTON — For their first seven years, filled with on-field losses and off-field gaffes, the Washington Nationals merely existed, barely mattered.
That’s why so much that happened in 2012 felt new and significant to them. All the regular-season wins – a best-in-baseball 98 – and the National League East title, the postseason highs and lows, the intense attention to the decision to shut down Stephen Strasburg in September.
And when it ended, in as difficult-to-digest a way as possible, the soft voices in the quiet Nationals clubhouse kept repeating the same word in the wee hours of Saturday, saying they would “learn” from what happened.
Learn from what for nearly every member of a young roster was a debut trip to the playoffs.
Learn from a 9-7 loss to the defending World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals in Game 5 of their NL division series – a game Washington led 6-0 early, then 7-5 with two outs in the ninth inning. So close, yet so far. No team in baseball history had blown a lead of more than four runs en route losing a winner-take-all postseason game.
Manager Davey Johnson: “We proved our worth and we just need to let this be a lesson and … learn from it, have more resolve, come back and carry it a lot farther.”
Closer Drew Storen, who five times threw a pitch while one strike from a victory but each was called a ball: “It’s the best job when you’re good at it. It’s the worst job when you fail. Just got to learn from it.”
General manager Mike Rizzo: “Just knowing the character and the makeup of the core guys in this clubhouse, I think we’ll use it as a learning tool, as a learning experience, and have a burning desire for it never to happen again. I think in the long run it’ll be something that we look back on and say, ‘It was an experience, it was a tough experience, but it’s one that makes you grow.’ ”
It was Rizzo who made perhaps the most talked-about personnel move in all of baseball this year, leaving Strasburg off the NLDS roster after making the prized right-hander stop pitching with about 3½ weeks left in the regular season. This was Strasburg’s first full season after reconstructive surgery on his right elbow, and Washington wanted to protect him for the future.
“I stand by my decision, and we’ll take the criticism as it comes,” Rizzo said. “But we have to do what’s best for the Washington Nationals, and we think we did.”
The feeling around the club is its best days are on the horizon. With a core of All-Stars Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez, plus Jordan Zimmermann, in the rotation, and Bryce Harper, Jayson Werth, Ryan Zimmerman and Ian Desmond in the lineup, the Nationals like the way they’ve set themselves up.
“Somebody once said to me, ‘When you look back at years of losing, you just smile, because when it gets to the winning, it’s awful sweet.’ I think we’ve reached that stage,” said Mark Lerner, the son of Nationals principal owner Ted Lerner, “and we’ll be good for a long, long time to come.”
That very well may be.
In the interim, though, there are a string of questions facing the Nationals as they head into the offseason:
• How will Strasburg react to the way his season ended and what kind of numbers can he produce with no restrictions at all?
• Will Adam LaRoche, the first baseman who led Washington with 33 homers and 100 RBI, leave as a free agent?
• How much longer will the 69-year-old Johnson, whose contract as the skipper is done, manage?
• How much better can Harper get? He turns 20 on Tuesday; in Game 5, he became the only teen in baseball history with a postseason triple and one of two with a postseason homer.
• What will it take for Storen and the rest of the group to put the meltdown against the Cardinals behind them?
“Come spring training next year, we’ll be more battle-tested. Our young players will have grown up and they’ll be veterans,” Rizzo said. “And we’ll know how to react to the playoff atmosphere.”
His team arrived in the playoffs a year earlier than anyone really expected. After never finishing better than third in the NL East, the Nationals took over first place for good in May and eventually gave the nation’s capital its first taste of postseason baseball since 1933.
Pretty much everyone associated with the Nationals expect the wait for the next October journey to last 12 months, not 79 years.
“We were right there. We were one out, one strike, away a couple of times. We’ve come a long ways, and I think that’s why it hurts even more – because of what we’ve been through,” said Zimmerman, the third baseman who was the club’s first draft pick after it moved from Montreal to Washington in 2005. “We’re the first team in this organization ever to be to this level, and its hurts. We put ourselves in a great position and had a chance to do something special, but we all should be proud of what we did this year.”