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Nats find late-season push isn't enough

Zimmermann's strong year overshadowed by lineup's disappointing results

WASHINGTON -- Before the 2013 season started, Nationals manager Davey Johnson made a bold prediction: "World Series or bust." The season turned out to be a bust, as the Nationals struggled for much of the year and were eliminated from the National League Wild Card race on Sept. 23.

Injuries played a role in the Nationals' disappointing year. The biggest blow came in the middle of May, when Bryce Harper crashed into the right-field wall at Dodger Stadium and damaged his left knee. He would miss more than a month of action, and the Nationals went 21-22 when he was not in the lineup.

There were times that Johnson couldn't find a solution for his struggling bullpen, which was average at best. The group's performance was so dismal at one point that Drew Storen was optioned to the Minor Leagues for a couple of weeks.

Rafael Soriano was in his first year as the Nationals' closer, and he saved over 40 games, but he was inconsistent during the second half of the season.

There was a point during the first half of the season when the Nationals simply couldn't drive in baserunners, prompting the club to relieve Rick Eckstein of his duties as hitting coach in July. The offense did improve once Rick Schu replaced Eckstein. Still, the offense, pitching and defense couldn't jell at once. As a result, the Nationals found themselves watching the postseason from home.

Record: 86-76, second place in National League East

Defining moment: On Sept. 19, the Nationals were making a push to return to the thick of the NL Wild Card race, having completed a doubleheader sweep of the Braves the previous day. They were only 4 1/2 games behind the Reds for the second and final NL Wild Card spot with 10 games left. Washington knew it could hardly afford to lose any more games if it wanted to catch Cincinnati. But Washington ended up losing to Atlanta, 5-2, and five days later was eliminated from postseason contention after crushing losses to the Marlins and Cardinals.

What went right: Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez got the bulk of the attention, but right-hander Jordan Zimmermann was clearly Washington's best pitcher in 2013. Zimmermann won a team-best 19 games, exceeded 200 innings for the first time in his career and was invited to his first All-Star Game. He led a pitching staff that finished eighth in the Major Leagues in ERA.

Despite a slow start, the offense produced five players -- Harper, Ian Desmond, Adam LaRoche, Jayson Werth and Ryan Zimmerman -- who finished with at least 20 home runs.

What went wrong: During the first half of the season, the Nationals were near the bottom of almost every offensive category. It didn't help that Harper missed more than a month of the season, but the Nationals also had problems defensively, placing in the bottom 10 of the Majors in fielding percentage.

Johnson often said the team would be better off with extra lefties in the bullpen, but general manager Mike Rizzo declined to bring back relievers Tom Gorzelanny and Mike Gonzalez -- and they were missed.

The Nationals started the season with one lefty -- Zach Duke -- in the bullpen, and he was hit hard before the club released him in June. The Nats then tried using Fernando Abad and Ian Krol out of the 'pen, and they were effective for a while, but Abad was ultimately unable to get lefties out and Krol struggled to get outs of any kind. For reasons unknown, Xavier Cedeno wasn't used until early September, by which point the Nationals were nearly out of the NL Wild Card race.

In 2012, Johnson often praised his reserves for winning ballgames for the Nationals. This year was a different story. Infielder Steve Lombardozzi was essentially the only productive player off the bench. Look for the team to make massive changes to that area in 2014.

Biggest surprise: The Nationals discovered they have two pitchers who could possibly be in the rotation next year: Right-handers Tanner Roark and Taylor Jordan.

Back in Spring Training, Roark had no idea that he would be in the big leagues in 2013. It's not as if he made a good impression to Johnson during his experience in big league camp. However, thanks to a recommendation from pitching coordinator Spin Williams, Roark found himself in the big leagues by August. In 13 appearances this year, he won seven games and posted an ERA under 2.00.

Jordan's season came to an end on Aug. 16. He was on an innings limit after undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2011, but he managed to pitched a combined 142 innings between the Majors and Minors, and for the Nationals, he posted a 3.66 ERA.

Although his season ended early, Jordan kept busy as September drew to a close. He was lifting weights, and while he didn't have bullpen sessions or throw off the mound, Jordan was doing some long tossing. Teammates Strasburg and Zimmermann, who have both undergone Tommy John surgery, told Jordan to keep throwing in order to be ready for next season.

Jordan's biggest goal is to start next year with the big league team and pitch a full season for the first time in his professional baseball career.

Bill Ladson is a reporter for and writes an MLBlog, All Nats All the time. He also could be found on Twitter @WashinNats

Washington Nationals, Bryce Harper, Taylor Jordan, Tanner Roark, Stephen Strasburg, Jayson Werth, Ryan Zimmerman, Jordan Zimmermann