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Nats battle to final week after slow start to season

Late-year turnaround not enough to meet preseason expectations

ST.LOUIS -- Entering the 2013 season, the Nationals were favored by many to win their second straight National League East title. But the Braves got out to a fast start while the Nats started slowly, easing Atlanta's path to become champions of the division, while three teams from the NL Central -- the Cardinals, Pirates and Reds -- found their way to the postseason.

One can imagine how the Nationals felt after losing to the Cardinals, 4-3, and being eliminated from the Wild Card race on Monday night. The locker room was quiet. There was manager Davey Johnson fighting back tears and outfielder Bryce Harper sitting by his locker for 45 minutes while reporters were trying to get some insight as to why the Nationals couldn't repeat as division champions.

Washington lost to the Cardinals in the NL Division Series last season. To a man, everyone was able to get over the devastating loss last October.

"The postseason door is officially closed," shortstop Ian Desmond said. "But there are still five games that can provide us an opportunity to get better. We have the opportunity to rain on [the Cardinals'] parade a little bit, so to speak. That's my intention, play as hard as you can, regardless if we are in the postseason or not. Just try to be professional, go out, play the game the right way and just try to take a couple from them."

Injuries played a role in the Nationals not making the playoffs. The biggest blow came when Harper missed more than a month after banging his left knee into the right-field wall at Dodger Stadium during the middle of May.

Harper wasn't totally healthy after he came back, dealing with hip issues, which did not put him on the DL.

"I'm not going sit here and say I'm a game changer, but we are a great team. Me being in this lineup is huge, and I have to be in this lineup every night," Harper said.

Besides Harper being sidelined, the Nationals didn't get any production from their bench, while the bullpen was average at best. They didn't have a quality lefty out of the bullpen until late in the second half when Xavier Cedeno started getting lefties out on a consistent basis in September.

The offense struggled so badly during the first half that they dismissed Rick Eckstein as the hitting coach.

"We dug our own hole. We just couldn't dig out of it," Johnson said. "We didn't do the things we were capable of early. We came back strong. That's baseball. I love those guys -- great talent, make makeup. Just didn't get it done. We fixed some problems that we had. ... I like the balance of this club. I think going forward, it's going to be very positive."

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