For the Washington Nationals, last night was a bittersweet reminder of what could’ve been
At the end of last night’s win over the Phillies, the Washington Nationals celebrated. They stormed onto the field and chased down Bryce Harper—congratulating him for his walk-off double that gave the team their 79th win of the season.
Earlier in the evening, however, the New York Mets had had a celebration of their own, and the circumstances could not have been more different. For the Mets, last night was a night of joy and relief as the team clinched their first NL East title in nine years. For the Nationals, last night was a bittersweet example of what could’ve been, had things gone how they were supposed to.
For the Nationals, September was supposed to be a month of celebration. Going into the season, the Nationals were expected to run away with the division and storm into the postseason with nothing but a World Series title on their minds. Right around this time or perhaps even earlier, the Nationals were supposed to be celebrating their third NL East title in four years and aligning their rotation for the postseason. In other words, they were supposed to be exactly where the Mets are right now.
Of course, none of that happened.
A variety of unfortunate circumstances—most of which were self-inflicted—doomed the Nationals’ playoff chances weeks before the Mets popped open the champagne. The Nationals were slowed by an absurd amount of injuries early in the season, and they were destroyed by inconsistency in all aspects of the game in the second half.
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For weeks now, what happened last night had been unavoidable. The Nationals just kept getting worse and worse, while the Mets kept getting better and better. In the end, the Mets’ lead was too large to overcome, and the Nationals’ notable improvement was far too little, far too late. Last night was the night the ‘dream’ officially came to an end in 2015, but the division was lost long ago.
In a way, it was fitting that the Nationals went out the way they did.
Harper, who has carried the Nationals all season and at times has seemed like the only bright spot on a team full of busts, was in that same familiar roll last night. Just as he has done throughout the course of the season, Harper gave fans a reason to celebrate, even though the realities of the game had long ago put the team’s fate out of Harper’s control. Stephen Strasburg was also a star in last night’s game, striking out 13 batters over eighth brilliant innings and turning in one of his best starts of the season.
In sports and in life, it’s often useless to discuss hypotheticals. If something has already happened, there’s no sense in discussing what could’ve happened. But when it comes to the Nationals’ failed 2015 campaign, it’s almost impossible not to ask yourself—what if? What if Harper hadn’t been the only guy carrying the lineup all season long? What if Strasburg had been healthier and pitched like he did last night from Day 1? What if the bullpen and the manager hadn’t screwed up as often as they did?
A walk-off victory is usually exciting for a team. But for the Nationals and their fans, it was hard to celebrate yesterday’s win when they know that they could’ve done better. If the Nationals had played to their ability all season long, they would probably be where the Mets are right now. They’d be lining up Max Scherzer with Clayton Kershaw and Stephen Strasburg with Zack Greinke in the NLDS, and they’d be looking forward to October instead of April.
But, like I said, there’s no sense in spending too much time thinking about that. For the Nationals, the focus turns to the offseason and 2016, when expectations will once again be through the roof. But last night’s win was bittersweet—about as bittersweet as a win can be.
The Nationals got the win. They got their late-September, on-field celebration. They got their fireworks. But at the same time, they lost their season—a season that was once promising but stalled in August. And when that happens, it’s almost easier to look forward to a cold Winter than to celebrate a meaningless win.