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Nationals Exit Wondering What Might Have Been

October 14, 2016
The Washington Nationals blew it. 

The Nats were ready to advance to the National League Championship Series for the first time since arriving in town 11 years ago. They matched up well against the Chicago Cubs, who would have been their NLCS opponent, and had hopes of reaching the World Series. Maybe the city's first baseball title since 1924 was possible. 

And then came a 66-minute seventh inning Oct. 13 that forced the team's third first-round exit in five years. Several bad decisions during 10 minutes undermined the season. 

The Los Angeles Dodgers eliminated the Nats by taking advantage of Washington's mistakes. The worst was sending Jayson Werth home, only to have him easily thrown out on Dodgers shortstop Corey Seager's relay, killing a sixth-inning rally. It wasn't even close, and it gave the Dodgers life entering the seventh trailing, 1-0.

Naturally, the first pitch of the seventh was crushed by Dodgers center fielder Joc Peterson to tie the game. Moments later, Washington manager Dusty Baker pulled ace Max Scherzer despite just allowing his first run. Washington needed five more pitchers that inning and allowed three more runs to score. 

The Nats are paying Scherzer $210 million for postseason wins. Instead, he finished 0-1 in two games. The team hired Baker to win playoff games. Instead, he showed no unusual magic and was left a hitter short in the season's final at-bat. 

This game was unofficially done when Scherzer exited, despite the Nats later closing to 4-3 in the bottom of the seventh. A base running error later that inning undermined a chance for more Nats runs to win.

Maybe Nats fans are getting used to this postseason dysfunction. After all, the cross-town Capitals thrive on it. The Wizards and Redskins barely reach the playoffs anymore, and the few appearances were brief. Indeed, no Washington team has reached a conference final since the Caps in 1999. 

Not that fans gave up. Even with the final Metro trains leaving in the seventh inning, few of the 43,936 left Nationals Park. It seems Washington is finally a baseball town once more, with everyone willing to stay to the bitter end -- well after midnight.

Now the question is can Washington make needed changes for a 2017 playoff run? Pitching, surprisingly, seems to be atop the list once more.

Scherzer and Tanner Roark remain starters next season, but Stephen Strasburg is once more a big question. He missed the final month of the season with arm troubles that tainted a 15-4 mark. He looked so good before September and would have been invaluable in the postseason.

The Nats are suddenly wondering if someone they gave $175 million last spring for a long-term deal might not pitch much longer. 

Meanwhile, the Nats need to replace lefty starter Gio Gonzalez. He was 11-11 with a 4.57 ERA, but his unpredictability is too much.

The Nats should re-sign reliever Mark Melancon, who was 1-1 with 17 saves since being traded from Pittsburgh July 30. Relievers tend to have a short shelf life, but he was Washington's best without any obvious heir. San Francisco is reportedly interested in Melancon, so the price won't be cheap.

Three everyday players could also be gone. Catcher Wilson Ramos will likely miss most if not all of 2017 with a knee injury suffered last month. He's not under contract, and the Nats must move on despite the popular player hitting .307. Shortstop Danny Espinosa's .209 batting average can't be tolerated any longer. Not with first baseman Ryan Zimmerman's long franchise service probably earning him one more year after batting .218. 

It will be a big offseason for the Nats, while they watch others play for a title that could have been theirs. That will be the hardest part of all.