The party at my place started well before the first pitch of the Washington Nationals' 3-0 shutout of the Atlanta Braves on Sunday. A couple comrades of mine had come over bringing gifts of gold, frankincense and beer to take in the game and toast the final game at Nationals Park. The first pitch was thrown at 1:35 p.m., the first Pabst Blue Ribbon was thrown into the air in elation somewhere around the end of the top of the third when Ross Detwiler got out of a bases loaded jam, and honestly the party hasn't stopped, even long after Nationals closer Drew Storen earned his 42nd save of the season.
Throughout the day, a standard get-together soon evolved into what can only be called a "Nationals Irish Wake." As the game went on several of us had started to take off our Nationals jerseys, caps and a Nationals keychain was donated to a table top in the room. We laid these items out, and I even took a few candles out of the closet, lit them up and settled them around this Nationals shrine. It was a fitting tribute; a way to pay our respects to yet another Nationals season completed (at least at home). Then someone threw on some John Fogerty, put the Cambodian chicken on the grill and cracked open a fresh case of brew, and we were off!
And why not?
The Nationals had just earned another series win, their second consecutive series win against a NL East foe after sweeping the Philadelphia Phillies in Philly. In just one week, the Nationals were able to expose some kinks in the NL East champs and completely endanger the Braves playoff hopes. The Nationals moved to 78-80 on the season with no mathematical way to finish in the cellar for the first time since 2007, and are one game away from clinching third place in the division, the highest the Nationals have ever placed. If the Nationals can possibly sweep the Florida Marlins over the next three days, they will finish with an above-.500 record for the first time ever. Who could blame some Washington fans for throwing a shin-dig? And celebrate we did, but always with a thought in the back of our minds. We were holding a wake, and usually when you hold a wake, it means that someone or something has died.
The Nationals 2011 season is passing into history and will be soon pushing up daisies in the mausoleums of baseball reference sites. Ultimately, the season will be remembered positively for the myriad of statistical data that the writers are already coming up with to convince us that better days are right around the corner of next year. Very few in Natstown are avoiding riding high and looking forward to 2012 with excitement, thanks to the Nationals late season finish and pummeling of NL rivals.
But the fact is, we've seen this before. In 2009 the Nationals, under the managerial leadership of Jim Riggleman after Manny Acta was fired in July, finished the season on a seven-game winning streak at the expense of NL East teams as well. Despite finishing dead last in the division and garnering an atrocious 59–103 record, the same joy-joy feelings and unconquerable optimism were sowed into the fan base about the new season right around the corner. In 2010, the Nationals finished last in the NL East once again.
So in essence, what does the Nationals' strong finish in 2011 mean? Really, almost nothing.
The 2010 Nationals had the same problems as the 2011 Nationals, as will the 2012 Nationals. All the same problems. They are lacking at least one MLB starting pitcher that would firm up the foundation of the rotation. They are missing a consistent, potent bat. There hasn't been a Nationals team since baseball returned to the District that didn't have an outfielder problem. Of course someone long term in the skipper position would be gravy, but is Davey Johnson that guy? The jury is still out. I mean, Riggleman was the guy in 2009 after a winning spurt, wasn't he?
Shortstop Ian Desmond said it best after one of the games the Nats bashed the Phillies. He said, "If you're not first, you're last." This moment of Zen is absolutely true. At the end of the season, the Nationals are either a third- or fourth-place team, and third and fourth isn't going to cut it in the NL East or any other division. Desmond gives me hope this fact is finally being saturated into the Nationals' ideology.
The team has shown progress, but let's not anoint D.C. a "baseball destination" just yet. It looks to be getting close and it has a little more going for it than it did in that 2009-2010 seasons or any before it. The Nationals of old never had five first-round draft picks in their MLB stable like they do in 2011. Going into 2012, they could have seven with Bryce Harper and Anthony Rendon close to major-league ready. Nationals Park is finding an identity, the team are ingraining themselves in the D.C. community with the opening of a baseball academy and other charity ventures, and yes, on the field the Nationals have improved in record and standings. But they still have holes, in everything from the on-field product to off it. We can't easily forget how much trouble the Nationals' offense had hitting the ball, especially with ducks on the pond.
So I celebrated a Nationals Irish Wake. I mourn the passing of another baseball season. I mourn yet another season where the Nationals are staying home in October. This is not good, but I also celebrate yet another season of D.C. baseball and celebrate the promise and idea that it is finally all coming together.
It just isn't exactly there yet.