In looking back at the 2012 Washington Nationals season, one could say that it was a pleasant surprise to some, but expected by others. By winning the NL East crown with a record of 98-64 and advancing to the post season for the first time since coming to Washington, the Nationals gave their fans a year to remember.
It started in spring training when manager Davey Johnson told anyone who would listen that if Washington did not make it to the playoffs then he should be fired. Johnson had plenty of reason for optimism. The Nationals had finished a game below .500 in 2011 and had much of the same talent coming back. Washington had strengthened its pitching staff by acquiring Gio Gonzalez in a trade with the Oakland Athletics and Stephen Strasburg was back from Tommy John surgery. The fact that MLB expanded its playoffs to five teams gave the Nationals a better chance of advancing as well.
Washington got off to a good start and took over first place in the NL East on April 11. They remained there until May 13 and then took over the top spot for good on May 22. The Nationals biggest lead would be 8 1/2 games before the Atlanta Braves made a late run in September. Washington clinched the NL East on October 1.
Despite their almost wire to wire finish, the Nationals had their share of adversity. Top line starters Michael Morse, Jayson Werth and Ian Desmond all missed time due to injury. Starting catcher Wilson Ramos was lost for most of the season with a knee injury. Projected closer Drew Storen began the season on injured reserve with a sore elbow. Washington never fielded its projected opening day lineup.
However, the injuries opened the door for others to make their marks, the most prominent being rookie outfielder Bryce Harper. Though many thought the 19 year old phenom was not ready for the majors, Johnson hinted that he may be called up during the season. Harper was called up in April and went on to win NL Rookie of the Year honors.
With Storen rehabbing, Tyler Clippard took over the closer role. Though he struggled at times, the right hander finished with 32 saves in 37 chances and was a major factor in the Nationals success.
Coming back from his own injury problems in 2011, first baseman Adam LaRoche picked up the slack for missing teammates by winning Gold Glove and Silver Slugger awards. More important, he gave the team veteran leadership which they had been missing.
Gonzalez led the pitching staff with 21 wins while Strasburg won 15 before being shut down in September. The decision to sit Strasburg after 160 innings led to much second guessing, but it was the right move. Many young pitchers have had their careers shortened by throwing too many post season innings and Washington does not want that to happen to Strasburg.
The Nationals created so much excitement that D.C. police chief Kathy Lanier admitted the city was planning for a victory celebration in October. Of course, we all know that one should never tempt the baseball gods. Washington took the defending world champion St. Louis Cardinals to the final inning of their NL Divisional Series before losing 9-7. This came one day after a dramatic, bottom of the ninth, game winning home run by Werth kept their season alive.
Despite, the disappointment of losing to St. Louis, the Nationals had a great 2012. It came as a surprise to many, but was expected by those who follow the ball club.
Overall, it was a season to remember for fans of the curly W.