Why The Washington Nationals Collapsed

There’s no more disappointing team in baseball this year than the Washington Nationals. The betting favorite to win the World Series when the season started and still leading the NL East at the All-Star break, the Nationals’ collapse has been stunning. And it was the pitching, this organization’s pride and joy that did them in.

Joe Gibbs Washington Redskins

Washington was 54-46 when they went to New York to face the Mets in a three-game weekend series to end the month of July. The Nats lost three straight, but a trade deadline acquisition of Jonathan Papelbon gave Washington a big boost to their bullpen and someone with a good October resume. Some—like…uh…myself…called Papelbon the biggest addition of the entire trade deadline.

Turns out, being swept in Citi Field was a harbinger of things to come. The Nationals went 12-17 in the month of August and their pitching went south.

Max Scherzer was terrible, going 0-3 with a 6.43 ERA in five August starts. Gio Gonzalez wasn’t much better, starting six games and going 1-3 with a 5.46 ERA. And the bullpen, presumably strengthened by Papelbon, fell apart. It wasn’t the new closer, but the arms in front of him that collapsed. Casey Janssen had a 7.20 ERA in August. Drew Storen, publicly upset about being demoted from the closer’s role after Papelbon arrived, was terrible, with an 8.49 ERA.

The team ERA in September got much better, and is fourth in the NL. Combined with an offense that hit the ball well in August and has sizzled in September, the Nats might have gotten in the race. But key pieces in the bullpen have continued to be terrible and Washington is only 12-11 in spite of those high rankings scoring and preventing runs.

Storen’s workload has been drastically reduced, and he’s only gotten five innings in September, giving up three runs. His replacements didn’t fare any better. Joe Ross and Blake Treinen got more innings and have ERAs over 6 for this month.

What makes the pitching collapse worst is that the offense has actually picked up the pace in August and September. At the All-Star break, the Nationals were fifth in the NL in runs scored. During August they went up to fourth and thus far in September, Washington is tied with Pittsburgh for the most runs scored in the National League.

Bryce Harper has done what he can to save this sinking season. He had a .460 on-base percentage in the month of August and even though he only hit two home runs in the fateful month, Harper drew 24 walks as pitchers stayed away from him. His supporting cast helped out, with Ryan Zimmerman hitting seven home runs and strong months coming from Isan Desmond, Yunel Escobar and Anthony Rendon.

The production from Harper will probably save his MVP award, but an organization whose rise to prominence was built on pitching, saw its arms fail them at the critical moment. This post goes online late Saturday afternoon and the Nationals are “poised” to be officially eliminated before the night is out.