Sunday, September 23, 2018

First baseman Ryan Zimmerman stood in the back corner of the Nationals clubhouse, an honored place he has occupied for the past decade.

Another season was coming to a disappointing conclusion, but this one felt much different. After two straight division titles, the Nationals began this season as a World Series favorite under a rookie manager with a world-champion pedigree.

But the Nationals were eliminated from postseason contention Saturday, and not even a .500 season is guaranteed with a roster that includes a potential rookie of the year and Cy Young Award candidate.

“You can’t win every year,” Zimmerman said. “A lot of good things happened this year. Obviously not what we wanted to happen but you can’t do it every year.”

The Nationals lost Friday night at Nationals Park to the Mets and that finished any hopes of winning the National League East. Then on Saturday, the Braves clinched the division with a win over the Phillies, and a win by the Cardinals over the Giants meant Washington had no chance for a wild card spot even though the Nationals beat the Mets 6-0 later that night.

“It stinks,” skipper Dave Martinez said of being eliminated.

What little things could the Nationals done better this year?

“That is a tough question right now. I don’t know,” Zimmerman said Saturday night. “Baseball is a game of little things: moving runners, making plays, taking the extra base. It is nothing new. Obviously you have to do those correctly. Health is a big thing and honestly players just playing like they should. Little things do add up.

“I think all of us will sit here and tell will tell we came here every day to try and win,” Zimmerman added. “At least I did. I can go home and be at peace with it. But it is frustrating. You want a chance to go to the playoffs. That is why it is sports and why sports are one of the greatest things in the world. You never know what is going to happen.”

What happened is the Nationals won the division title four times in the previous six seasons, but failed to advance past the first round of the playoffs.

Dusty Baker was not re-signed after two division titles in two years and the Nationals opened spring training this season with a rookie manager in Dave Martinez. The new Nationals skipper was previously the bench coach for the world champion Cubs in 2016.

“We came in ready to play (this year),” catcher Matt Wieters said. “We just didn’t play well enough.”

Wieters is another player who could be in his final days with the team.

Despite being eliminated, Martinez said he may still play many of the regulars since several starters are striving for personal goals.

“We still have some guys playing for something,” Martinez said. “(Adam) Eaton wants to play. (Left fielder Juan) Soto is playing for something. They want to keep playing.”

Soto is a National League rookie of the year candidate even though Atlanta outfielder Ronald Acuna, Jr. appears to be the favorite. At 19, Soto is hitting .298 with 20 homers.

Max Scherzer (17-7, 2.57) could make two more starts as he tries to win the Cy Young Award for third year in a row. However, Mets ace Jacob deGrom — who beat the Nationals on Friday — and the Phillies’ Aaron Nola have impressive numbers as well.

Shortstop Trea Turner has 17 homers, a league-high 41 steals and has played every game while third baseman Anthony Rendon reached base for the 30th game in a row Saturday. The win helped the Nationals improve to 78-77 as rookie pitcher Austin Voth got the win.

And outfielder Bryce Harper is a soon-to-be a free agent and could play his final home game at Nationals Park on Wednesday against the Marlins. Harper had 34 homers, 97 runs and 98 RBI through Saturday to close in on his first season with 100 RBI.

The Nationals were officially eliminated when the Cardinals hit a walkoff homer in the last of the 10th Saturday – just seconds before Harper came to the plate for perhaps the last time for a Saturday home game on South Capitol Street.

The Nationals offense has produced 10 runs in a game 14 times, but the team was undone by other numbers, including going 18 and 24 in one-run games and 4 of 10 in extra-inning contests. They have had just one winning month (May) so far, with a record of 10-9 in September, and have been shutout 14 times.

So what does the last week have in store, as The Nationals end the season with three games in Colorado next weekend.

“Just keep playing,” Wieters said. “We are all competitors.”

“These guys don’t quit,” Martinez added. “They are not going to quit.”

But for Nationals fans, that is little solace after division crowns in 2016 and 2017 and so much high hopes for this season.

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