Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 10, 2015

For Fans In DC, Disappointment And Doubt

The Mets may not win the World Series this year. Technically, they still might not even make the playoffs. But with a seven game lead in the NL East and fewer than two dozen games to play, as this is written the highly regarded postseason probabilities projection by Baseball Prospectus gives the Mets a 98% chance of playing on into October. That’s more than good enough for the franchise to have already begun an online lottery for eager fans hoping to win the opportunity to purchase tickets for the first playoff games to be played at Citi Field.

It’s been nine seasons since the Mets played on past game number 162 on the schedule. Those years included two heart-breaking collapses down the stretch in 2007 and 2008, followed by a sad succession of losing campaigns since Shea Stadium was demolished and the Mets moved into their new home on the other side of the parking lot. The franchise lost 66 more games than it won during its first six years at Citi Field, and never finished closer than 17 games behind their division’s winner. All that seems about to change, and a fan base that has suffered some remarkable indignities over the decades is understandably exuberant.

But it’s worth remembering that the Great Game always plays out to a zero sum. The Cardinals may finish the season with more than 100 wins, and the Phillies may match that sum in losses; but when all the records are added up across thirty franchises, the requisite balance will be struck at exactly .500. That immutable truth reminds us that one fan’s moment of joy is another’s instant of agony. If Mets fans, be they out by the far reaches of the 7 train in Queens or elsewhere around the country are celebrating their team’s second half surge and looking forward to October, some other team’s faithful must be experiencing opposite emotions. The fans who are the yang to the Mets yin wear red caps embroidered with a white curly “W.” They’re the loyal followers of the team that is surely in the running for the most disappointing this season, the Washington Nationals.

Back in the halcyon days of Spring Training, the Nats were a popular pick to finally bring joy to the baseball Mudville that is our nation’s capital by winning the World Series. Washington topped the NL East two of the last three years, second year skipper Matt Williams was the reigning NL Manager of the Year, Bryce Harper was one year more mature, and the team had fortified an already strong rotation with the offseason addition of 2013 AL Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer.

Yet there were warning signs right from Opening Day. Harper blasted a home run in his second at bat and added a single to go 2 for 4. But the offense managed just one other hit and Scherzer was outpitched by Bartolo Colon in a 3-1 loss to New York. The team scuffled through the first five weeks of the season, not getting above .500 until May 9th. But after finally achieving that bit of equilibrium, the Nationals won 12 of their next 16, climbed atop the NL East standings, and seemed headed for the successful season that so many had predicted.

Except that through the summer months Washington never produced a sustained period of solid play. Their loyalists will proclaim that the Nats have been victimized by injuries. To be sure the batting order that was projected to be on manager Williams’s lineup card day in and day out almost never took the field together until recently; and when it did so more injuries quickly followed.

But injuries alone don’t explain the Nationals’ descent into mediocrity. On July 31st they were at Citi Field for the first of three against the then second place Mets. Washington was eight games over .500 and three clear of New York. By the time they left Queens, the Nationals and the Mets were tied atop the division, with New York having swept the series. It was the beginning of a six week stretch in which the Nats went 17-22 and fell seven games behind New York and even further behind in the Wild Card race.

During that period Williams’s managerial moves have left fans in the stands shaking their heads in disbelief. In his last six outings Scherzer has lost three, had four no decisions and posted an ERA of 6.06. First baseman Ryan Zimmerman is batting more than thirty points below his career average. For outfielder Jayson Werth the gap is more than forty points. Up and down the lineup the roster is underperforming. The sole consistent bright spot is Harper, who is a leading candidate for the NL’s MVP Award.

The six week slide that began with three losses to the Mets in New York culminated this week with three more losses to the now first place Mets. On paper this second Mets sweep was damaging enough, since it nearly doubled New York’s division lead. But the psychic damage to the Nationals and their fans was of far greater significance.

These contests were not played in distant Queens, but in front of cheering fans at Nationals Park.  In the first game Washington led 5-3 at the end of the 4th inning, on the strength of a Wilson Ramos grand slam. But Mets’ captain David Wright spurred a comeback, and New York won 8-5. One night later the home team led 2-0 after one, 3-1 after two, and 7-1 at the end of the 4th inning. But in the 7th inning three different Nationals’ relievers issued a total of six walks, as the Mets rallied for an 8-7 victory. Finally on Wednesday Washington had leads of 1-0 and 2-1 before the visitors plated three in the top of the 8th on their way to a 5-3 win.

Three crucial games against the team that Washington was chasing. Three home games the Nationals led. Three home games they lost. As much as the series had an impact on the NL East standings, it spoke even more loudly about the heart and the will of these two teams.

The Nationals may still win the World Series this year. Technically, they have not yet been eliminated from the playoffs. But their yang to the Mets’ yin is a 2% chance of playing on, based on the thousands of simulations run by the geeks and their computers at Baseball Prospectus. Readers are surely familiar with the old adage about how the audience knows when the opera is finally over. At Nationals Park, the big girl is getting ready to sing.

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