Our Long Nationals Nightmare is Over

Before the Washington Nationals lost their final regular season game to the National League East champion Mets, general manager Mike Rizzo promised he wasn't going to leave people twisting in the wind. Rizzo's words, not mine. Maybe he thought Nats fans had been forced into doing the twist too long this season already.

Monday morning Rizzo kept his promise — and how. He executed manager Matt Williams, just a year after Williams was named the National League's Manager of the Year. The man who came into the season leading the prohibitive World Series favorites leaves it with his head in a guillotine basket.

Rizzo also executed Williams's entire coaching staff — including respected pitching coach Steve McCatty, batting coach Rick Schu, and bench coach Randy Knorr, the man Nats players actually wanted to succeed Davey Johnson on the bridge.

The only surprise seems to be that Williams wasn't fired the moment the Nats' flight back to Washington landed after the 1-0 Sunday loss. And his managerial obituary is likeliest to be headlined, "He didn't see the iceberg until after it hit the Titanic." Until after it hit, hell. Williams didn't see the iceberg until after the damned ship sank.

The Washington Post's impeccable Thomas Boswell found an even more delicious analogy a week earlier, after it came forth that Jonathan Papelbon tried to choke Bryce Harper in the dugout and Williams admitted having no clue: "If Matt Williams had been at Ford's Theatre in 1865, he would have loved the play. Did something go wrong? Nope, didn't see a thing. Nobody said anything, either."

At the same time, another Post writer, Barry Svrluga, published a wholly damning three-part series examining just how the Nats went from Series favorites to serious ignominy. The Nats were dogged by injuries and inconsistent play all season long, but these Nats could have been the healthiest team in baseball and Williams would still have left jaws on the floor and a team in shards.

The bill of particulars just involving in-game thinking or lack thereof is damning enough, from lifting a starter from division series tying games one out from a complete game shutout to bringing in a rookie instead of three solid veterans to lose a division series.

From refusing to use his setup man and closer in pressure situations that weren't eighth or ninth inning assignments to refusing to juggle his rotation to let Max Scherzer face the oncoming Mets in a series that just might have proven to begin the Nats' final downfall.

From bunting with a hitter who couldn't bunt and leaving on-deck Bryce Harper at the mercy of a guaranteed intentional walk to sending Harper's would-be choker Jonathan Papelbon out to pitch the ninth anyway because he didn't see the attack until shown video postgame — then declaring Harper's pre-scheduled off day the following day was really discipline for his "involvement" in the previous day's assault, which amounted to giving the victim a little blame after all.

From warming relief pitchers up repeatedly but not bringing them in one night to watching in disbelief when he brought them in the following day and couldn't understand why they had nothing left but fumes and would be ignited on the mound.

Williams might have begun losing his clubhouse after last year's division series. It might have continued when neither Williams, his brain trust, nor the front office seemed to have a clue about managing the rehabs of the wounded, or working the slumping out of their slumps.

But this season, factoring most of the above plus his equally maddening habit of failing to tell his players when they'd have off days until they saw it on the day's lineup card, Svrluga's series exposed the disconnect once and for all, when he cited Jayson Werth — likewise discovering his off day by seeing the lineup card and never hearing it from the skipper — cornering Williams and demanding to know, "When exactly do you think you lost this team?"

"He's like the guy in his house who hears a sound, like someone breaking in," said an unnamed Nat to Svrluga. "And his reaction isn't to take care of the problem or investigate. It's to put his head under the pillow and hope it goes away."

If that was Williams, Rizzo could be the guy in his house who puts a fire out with gasoline. Approaching the non-waiver deadline, Rizzo had a team who needed help at the plate and in the middle relief corps. (So who told him to trade Tyler Clippard, who'd come back to haunt him as a Met?) He had a revived closer who nailed 29 of 31 save opportunities and a nifty 1.64 ERA as of the day before the deadline.

Allowing limited resources in the wake of landing Scherzer on a $210 million deal, Rizzo decided the way to fix those plate and middle relief issues was to deal for ... a closer with a reputation for on- and off-the-mound combustibility. Pushing Storen into a setup role, misplacing veteran Casey Janssen — a former closer now suited better to a setup role, and showing a solid 2.82 ERA before the deadline — into the seventh inning role.

Storen and Janssen were a mess from then on. For the Nats players, whom Svrluga describes as practically fainting when the Papelbon deal was made, it felt like a betrayal considering their fondness for Storen and admiration for the ways he'd pitched his way back from often humiliating adversity.

Then Storen came into a 9 September game against the Mets only to see Yoenis Cespedes (if there's an award for Most Valuable Trade Deadline Acquisition, Cespedes would probably share it with David Price this year) send his second pitch over the left center field fence. He got the last two outs of the inning, then in abject frustration slammed his thumb into his locker's lock box — and couldn't bring himself to admit it until two days later, in Florida, when he couldn't throw.

Broken thumb, season done. Broken team, season done. And that was before Papelbon vs. Harper.

The long Nationals nightmare may be over at last. But that might be nothing compared to the one they face this winter. Whom to succeed Williams? Should Rizzo himself face the executioner?

Whom to bring in in the event they lose Zimmermann, Ian Desmond, Denard Span, and Doug Fister (who fisted his way out of the rotation and into the bullpen) to free agency? Can they re-balance a lineup that had only one everyday left-handed bat (Harper) and rarely got to look at left-handed pitching?

Will a promising kid corps (Rivero, Ross, outfielder Michael A. Taylor, middle infielder Trea Turner) begin keeping their promise next year? Can they rid themselves of Papelbon and his $11 million 2016? (Assuming nobody else in baseball wants him, is there any formal rule saying you can't trade a baseball player to the NHL or the UFC?)

And will the next Nationals manager see the icebergs before one of them hits the Titanic?

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