As the Washington Nationals soaked in the sweet taste of champagne following their National League east division title, it seemed that light years passed since Major League Baseball finally sold the team formerly known as the Montreal Expos to D.C. construction mogul Ted Lerner.
A neophyte to pro sports ownership, Lerner listened to experienced baseball executives—sometimes to a fault—but he used the same principles from his construction business to build a solid foundation for a contender. He turned the principal ownership over to his son Mark, who has been a silent steward letting his baseball people handle the day-to-day operations.
The Nationals have made America’s national pastime relevant in the Nation’s Capital, which is why this postseason trip is a bigger deal than the Orioles.
Making Baseball Matter
There were those who thought that baseball wouldn’t capture an audience in DC after losing a generation. While the real fan experience is lacking at Nationals Park, with the team as a contender, a great fanbase has been born.
As the Baltimore Orioles became a perennial doormat in the American League east, the regional fanbase—that Washington was part of—evaporated. Orioles ownership alienated his D.C. fans by claiming there were no real baseball fans in the District.
With a contending team, the Nats TV ratings and attendance have soared and they have captivated a new, younger and vibrant fanbase that should be around for the long haul.
Worst to First Quickly
In 2009, the Nationals were the worst team in baseball, finishing with a 59-103 record. They didn’t have a starting pitcher with a .500 record and lead the National League with 143 errors. Washington’s .977 fielding percentage was NL worst and the emotionless Manny Acta was fired.
The silver lining in all the losing was that the Nationals were able to draft Steven Strasburg and Bryce Harper, who were difference makers this year and are cornerstones of the future.
However, the mastery of Davey Johnson, who Baltimore fired after their last trip to the postseason, can’t be underscored enough for teaching a young team how to be professionals and giving them confidence to compete for a division title.
Know When To Hold
When the Nationals were in trade talks for players who were supposed to be difference makers, they remained committed to their farm hands who paid big dividends this year. Ian Desmond and Danny Espinosa were the apple of other team's eye when discussing deals with Washington, and they were deemed untouchable.
Desmond and Espinosa solidified the middle defense by making all the routine plays and enough web gems to eliminate the extra outs that plagued them the last three years. Until hip injury shut him down after the All-Star break, Desmond was thought to be an MVP candidate.
Armed For Success
When then President Stan Kasten made his initial media tour as the Expos moved to Washington, he preached patience. There was a five-year plan that the Nationals embarked on, and this season it finally came to fruition.
Washington made the commitment to building the farm system and stocking it with live young arms. They paid dividends as Jordan Zimmerman, Ross Detweiler and John Lannan—who spent most of the year in the minors—are a combined 26-17.
And for what its worth, some guy named Steven Strasburg finished 15-6, which means the Nationals farm system produced a staff that was 41-23.
The perfect complement to a dominant pitching staff, the Nationals enjoyed a surge in power this season. Washington leads the NL in home runs and the team batting average is fourth. There have been peaks and valleys with Washington’s offense this year, which has been tied to their injuries.
Nationals batters struggled during stretches where Ryan Zimmerman, Jayson Werth and Michael Morse were on the disabled list. However, the unexpected contribution of Steve Lombardozzi when Desmond went down has been priceless.
Minors Prove Major
Normally, the farm system is the place to cultivate young talent, but this year, the Nationals actually used it to keep a proven winner under wraps. Lannan languished in Syracuse after being their top starter for the last two years. Though he didn’t appreciate the move at the time, it gave Washington the encouragement needed to shutdown Strasburg.
Lannan won his first four starts, including wins over division rivals Marlins, Mets and the Phillies twice. However, that embodied the depth of the organization, which allowed them to be patient with their young talent and be prudent with transactions such as signing Jayson Werth and Edwin Jackson as free agents.
They also used four prospects to acquire Gio Gonzalez last December.