WASHINGTON — Jayson Werth knew this season’s NL Division Series defeat following a division title felt different from the same scenarios that played out for the Washington Nationals a couple of other times recently.
“I don’t know,” the team’s left fielder said, then repeated that phrase in a silent, somber clubhouse in the early hours of Friday after a 4-3 loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers in Game 5. “Words are not really coming to me to describe it. It’s pretty heavy. It’s going to take some time to digest.”
For the third time in five years, Werth and Washington won the NL East. And for the third time in five years, they failed to win a postseason series.
Now comes an offseason with some familiar questions about when, or even if, the 37-year-old Werth and other members of the core group that’s been around for these early exits can take the next step.
“A lot of people have played baseball a lot longer than me and never even made the playoffs. I cherish getting to the playoffs. Everyone wants to win the World Series. Everyone wants to, obviously, get to the next level and get in a deep postseason run. The truth of the matter is, it’s really hard to do. You have to obviously play well, get some lucky breaks and have a few things go your way,” said first baseman Ryan Zimmerman, the Nationals’ very first amateur draft pick more than a decade ago. “I think we should look at the positives and look what we’ve done in the last five years. Obviously, we’re all disappointed right now. But we’ve done a lot of good things.”
Dusty Baker was the latest manager to get Washington into the postseason but not to an NL Championship Series, pulling all the right strings during his first regular season with the team but seeing some moves not quite pan out against LA, especially in Game 5.
That added to his decade-plus, four-club track record of failing to win games that would have concluded a series.
In the aftermath of elimination, Baker was asked whether it’s inevitable that a team or a city goes through difficult moments before getting to a championship.
“You do have to go through some pain. It’s not a very pleasant pain. I’ve gone through that pain a few times now,” Baker said. “But you have to persevere. That’s the story of life. It’s how you deal with the down times and how you deal with pain. And if you just keep persevering, then something will happen, something good will happen. You can’t stop trying. You can’t stop trying to reach your goal.”
Here is what else to know about the Nationals’ 2016 season and upcoming offseason:
STRASBURG’S ELBOW: For the second time in his major league career, Stephen Strasburg sat out a postseason because of his right elbow. In 2012, it was because the right-hander was shut down 13 months after Tommy John surgery. This season, it was because Strasburg hurt his arm . His $175 million, seven-year contract kicks in next season, so the Nationals — and fans — will hold their breath waiting to find out how badly he’s injured. As became clear against the Dodgers, without Strasburg, there is nothing October-ready about the rotation beyond Max Scherzer — and the Nationals lost both games the NL Cy Young Award favorite started in the NLDS.
HARPER’S HEALTH: Bryce Harper went from being the youngest unanimous MVP in baseball history in 2015 to a bit of a mystery in 2016. His numbers went way down to a .243 average, 24 homers, 86 RBIs in the regular season, and he had only one RBI in the playoffs. The big question is whether he or the Nationals will ever explain exactly what his health status was — because if he wasn’t badly compromised by injury, then his lack of production at the plate becomes a lot more worrisome.
BULLPEN PROBLEMS: Time to rebuild the relief corps again. Closer Mark Melancon and middleman Marc Rzepczynski can become free agents (as can catcher Wilson Ramos , who had right knee surgery Friday). Setup man Shawn Kelley left Game 5 with numbness in his throwing hand. While the bullpen was spotless through three games against the Dodgers, it blew leads in Games 4 and 5 losses, the same old October story for this team.
TURNER’S EMERGENCE: The best news for Washington might be the emergence of rookie Trea Turner, who batted .342 with 13 homers, 40 RBIs and 33 steals despite only 307 at-bats and while learning to play center field.