Another year, another dispiriting finish for the Washington Nationals.

Yes, the Nats pushed the Los Angeles Dodgers to the maximum five games in the National League Division Series despite key injuries in the lineup and starting rotation.

At this point, though, Washington isn’t looking for moral victories.

The Nationals are seeking actual victories and, to put a fine point on it, trophies. They’re hoping to reverse their trend of choking in the division series. Most of all, they’re looking to optimize their roster and cash in while Bryce Harper remains gainfully employed in the nation’s capital.

First, let’s review Thursday’s heartbreaker.

The Nationals came into Game 5 against the Dodgers with their ace, Max Scherzer, on the hill and the home crowd behind them.

The Nats toted a 1-0 lead into the seventh inning before Los Angeles struck for four runs. Washington made it 4-3 when pinch hitter Chris Heisey launched a two-run homer in the bottom of the seventh.

But Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen and Clayton Kershaw combined on a gutsy relief effort and sent the Dodgers to a champagne shower.

The Nationals, meanwhile, were left to pick up the pieces of another stalled run. There was ample cause for angst, but here’s a bitter nugget, per Mark Zuckerman of

There was also the ill-advised decision to send Jayson Werth home in the sixth inning, as McCovey Chronicles’ Grant Brisbee captured:

In 2012, Washington was a strike away from finishing off the St. Louis Cardinals in the NLDS but ended up losing three games to two.

In 2014, the Nats rolled in as heavy favorites but were defeated in four games by the upstart San Francisco Giants.

Last season, Washington was a popular preseason pick to win it all behind a supposed super-rotation but finished second in the NL East and missed the postseason.

This year, veteran skipper Dusty Baker restored order to a fractured clubhouse, and the Nationals reclaimed the division.

They were dinged, however, by late-season injuries to All-Star catcher Wilson Ramos, right-hander Stephen Strasburg and second baseman Daniel Murphy.

Murphy returned for the division series, but Ramos (torn ACL) and Strasburg (balky elbow) didn’t play in the postseason.

That leaves Washington with some wiggle room to explain its early exit. Losing one of your top two rotation cogs and a steady backstop who hit .307 with 22 home runs is no small thing.

Still, excuses aside, another season has passed with the Nationals limping home in October. This can’t keep happening indefinitely.

There is youth on the roster, spearheaded by speedy rookie Trea Turner, who looks like a budding superstar. But the Nats are counting the days until 2015 NL MVP and franchise cornerstone Harper hits the open market.

Harper, who turns 24 Sunday, will become a free agent after the 2018 campaign. That’s not tomorrow, but it’s soon enough for the Nationals to begin wringing their hands.

Yes, they could re-sign Harper at some point between now and then. But even after a down year, he’s likely to bolt for a Brink’s truck payday somewhere else (cough, the Bronx).

That means Washington needs to do its darndest to win now—to turn these recurring October lemons into confetti-flavored lemonade.

“This is the biggest start of my career,” Scherzer said before Thursday’s game, per Eddie Matz of

He wasn’t wrong, though the 32-year-old right-hander will have other chances after inking a seven-year, $210 million contract in January 2015.

There’s hope on the horizon with a farm system Bleacher Report’s Joel Reuter ranked No. 10 in the game after the 2016 trade deadline.

But with Harper’s potential exit looming and the unpleasant taste of three postseason exits in their mouth, the Nats need to regroup. They need to retool, adding a closer to supplant free agent Mark Melancon (or bringing him back) and possibly getting reinforcements for the lineup and rotation.

Most of all, they need to cast aside that dispiriting feeling before it’s too late. The NL East won’t belong to them forever, with the New York Mets looking to get their stable of studs back and the young Philadelphia Phillies on the rise.

The Nationals are heading into the offseason on a down note. Unfortunately for them, that’s a familiar song.


All statistics current as of Thursday and courtesy of unless otherwise noted.

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