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Capital gains: Nats exceeded expectations in 2012

WAS View Full Game Coverage HINGTON -- This night should have ended with champagne and celebrations. The carpet in the Nationals' clubhouse had been reinforced, the plastic sheets lined up then rolled up the walls.

This season could have ended with champagne and celebrations, too. The Nats were the best team in baseball for 162 games, winners of the National League East and marching toward the World Series, needing to get past the defending champs in Game 5 of the NL Division Series at Nationals Park.

Instead, all that awaited the 2012 Washington Nationals, as Friday night bled into Saturday morning, was a quiet, somber home clubhouse. And all that awaits them as they begin to greet the offseason earlier than expected is a disappointing sense of what could have been.

Sure, once the sting of such an unprecedented and unforeseen finish wears off, they will look back and wrap their heads around what they accomplished. They brought playoff baseball back to the nation's capital for the first time in 79 years. They reinvigorated a fanbase and packed a ballpark in a way that probably shouldn't have happened until several years down the line.

Bad natitude
Over the past 14 seasons, only two teams that have finished with the best regular-season record have gone on to win the World Series.
Season Team Record Playoff result
1999 Braves 103-59 Lost WS, 4-0
2000 Giants 97-65 Lost NLDS, 3-1
2001 Mariners 116-46 Lost ALCS, 4-1
2002 A's 103-58 Lost ALDS, 3-2
Yankees 103-58 Lost ALDS, 3-1
2003 Braves 101-61 Lost NLDS, 3-2
Yankees 101-61 Lost WS, 4-2
2004 Cardinals 105-57 Lost WS, 4-0
2005 Cardinals 100-62 Lost NLCS, 4-2
2006 Mets 97-65 Lost NLCS, 4-3
Yankees 97-65 Lost ALDS, 3-1
2007 Red Sox 96-66 Won WS, 4-0
Indians 96-66 Lost ALCS, 4-3
2008 Angels 100-62 Lost ALDS, 3-1
2009 Yankees 103-59 Won WS, 4-2
2010 Phillies 97-65 Lost NLCS, 4-2
2011 Phillies 102-60 Lost in NLDS, 3-2
2012 Nationals 98-64 Lost in NLDS, 3-2

Yet as hard as it would have been to predict in February what happened during this seven-month ride of a season, it quickly became easy to see that the 2012 Nats were capable of even more. There will be a time for them to take pride in what they did. But this isn't that time. Not yet.

"Honestly, I don't think so. I think we all knew what we were capable of doing with the team we had," first baseman Adam LaRoche said. "Nothing against the year -- it was obviously a great year, having the best record in baseball and winning the division -- but I think this is going to burn in all of us for a while."

"I'm just sad for these guys. That's the thing for me. I've done it for a long time, been on both sides of it," added veteran Mark DeRosa. "I think that's the frustrating thing: This team had enough talent and enough maturity to maybe win the whole thing. That's what I was excited about, the chance to go up against San Francisco and a chance to go to the World Series. That's the tough part."

Indeed, the team that entered the year with modest expectations from the outside surpassed them far and away. Supposedly, the Nationals weren't ready to be this good this soon. But from the beginning of Spring Training, there was belief throughout the organization that this team could do just that.

"We've come a long way. I think that's why it hurts even more, because of what we were all able to do," said third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, the star of so many Washington teams that would have been overjoyed to even sniff these Nats' accomplishments. "But we should be proud of what we did this year, the first team in this organization to ever be at this level. It hurts. We put ourselves in a great position, had a chance to do something special, but we all should be proud of what we did this year."

The rotation was in place, a group of power arms led by right-handers Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann and lefty Gio Gonzalez, with Edwin Jackson and Ross Detwiler more than capable as fourth and fifth starters. And they lived up to that billing, posting the best numbers in the Majors for a starting rotation.

The lineup, when healthy, would be more than serviceable. As it turned out, the Nationals weren't healthy early on, but they found a way to scratch out wins regardless. And when they put together the group they envisioned in the spring, they were a force to be reckoned with.

Jayson Werth bounced back and became an ideal leadoff hitter. LaRoche put his injury-riddled 2011 season behind him and turned into the middle-of-the-order presence the Nats needed. Ian Desmond developed into perhaps Washington's most valuable position player.

When those regulars went down, there was more than enough depth behind them. Bryce Harper, the 19-year-old phenom, came up in late April and immediately energized the team with his almost reckless brand of baseball. Tyler Moore, Steve Lombardozzi and Roger Bernadina were role players thrust into everyday jobs at various points throughout the season, performing their jobs with seemingly no drop-off in production.

And then there was their manager, the 69-year-old Davey Johnson, who pushed all the right buttons and managed this group of personalities to bring out their best for so much of the season.

"It's just the chemistry. It was a bond of brothers sticking together," Gonzalez said. "Everyone on the top step, everyone cheering for each other -- one of those Cinderella stories you can only wish for.

"The way I see it is we did a great job. Washington got what they wanted. They saw something new, and you know what, it's going to be fun for the next couple years."

Still, there will be endless debate and plenty of ink spilled about whether this season, particularly the season-ending series against the Cardinals, would have played out differently had the Nationals not shut down Strasburg in early September. But Washington won't let that narrative define its season, instead hoping the benefits of the decision pay off down the line.

"I'm not going to think about it, no. We had a plan in mind. It was something that we had from the beginning," general manager Mike Rizzo said. "I stand by my decision, and we'll take the criticism as it comes. But we have to do what's best for the Washington Nationals, and we think we did.

"I'm very proud of them. We've come a long, long way in a fairly short period of time. Like I've said all along, we like where we're at. We like the core players on this team, and we're going to be excited to ratchet it up in the spring."

And that's where the Nats are left to look now -- next year. They will return their core group of players, including the entire rotation, minus Jackson, and the whole lineup, aside from potentially LaRoche. They'll return starting catcher Wilson Ramos, sidelined since the spring due to injury.

There will be higher expectations the next time around, of course. There likely will be obstacles they didn't come across on this run to the postseason. But the team that hadn't been there before has experienced the disappointment of falling just short, and it left a desire for champagne and celebrations for years to come.

"The fans deserved this as much as any one of us," Zimmerman said. "We gave them some fun times and some good memories, but I think this is only the start. Hopefully they'll be just as excited next year as they were this year, and we'll continue to grow as a team and give them something like this every year to look forward to."

Washington Nationals, Mark DeRosa, Gio Gonzalez, Adam LaRoche, Ryan Zimmerman