The Washington Nationals finished at the bottom of the NL East standings in the 2010 season. It was a familiar finish for the former Montreal Expos franchise.
The team had ended the season in last place in four of the previous five years since relocating south to the U.S. capital city.
That 2010 campaign wrapped up the third season for the team at Nationals Park, and team management was looking to turn around the fortunes of the franchise.
During the off-season, GM Mike Rizzo looked over his youthful roster and believed that he saw things about to change.
Players like Ryan Zimmerman, Ian Desmond, Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, and Danny Espinosa were beginning to emerge. In June, the club picked at the top of the MLB Amateur Draft, selecting mega-hyped teenager Bryce Harper.
Rizzo saw the beginnings of better days ahead in the near future. But he wanted a veteran, proven, run-producing bat to help the club take the next step.
Just in time, star right fielder Jayson Werth of the division-rival Philadelphia Phillies was becoming a free agent.
WERTH JOINS THE NATIONALS
Rizzo stepped up, signing Werth to a huge seven-year, $126 million contract with a no-trade clause.
David Aldridge for WJLA ABC-7 in Washington quoted Rizzo at the time:
It all worked out to near perfection. In the first year of Werth’s deal the Nationals nearly finished .500 with an 80-81 mark. It was good enough for third place in the division, though still a distant 21.5 games behind the Phillies, who captured their fifth consecutive NL East crown.
However, in 2012 the club called up Harper in late April, and things began to completely turn around.
I remember a moment of personal clarification as well. On Saturday, May 5 of that 2012 season, my wife Debbie and I attended our first-ever game at Nationals Park.
On that afternoon, the slow-starting Phillies were 13-15, and uncharacteristically struggling in last place. The Nats meanwhile were humming along at the top of the division with an 18-9 mark.
The Phillies, along with myself and thousands more Phillies fans who had made the trip for that afternoon contest, were hoping this game would help turn things around.
The Phils grabbed a 1-0 lead in the top of the 4th inning behind Vance Worley. That lead would hold into the bottom of the 5th inning. Half the game was over, and we were having a rollicking time at the Nationals packed home field, much to the chagrin of most in the packed house.
And then it happened with suddenness. The Nationals had two on and two out in the home 5th when Werth, the former Phillies 2008 World Series hero, stepped to the plate.
Back in the first inning, Worley had struck the nearly 33-year old Werth out. But this time, on a 1-0 offering, Werth crushed a lightening bolt blast way out over the left field stands. The home crowd roared as we Phils’ fans sat incredulous, watching our former hero round the bases.
The Nationals had a 3-1 lead en route to what would be a 7-1 demolition. It was a long ride back up I-95 to Philadelphia. It would prove an even longer season. The Nationals stormed to their first NL East crown, dethroning the Phillies, who struggled to a .500 finish.
THE NL EAST FINALLY FLIPS
That was the turning point. Since 2012, the Phillies have collapsed to the bottom of the division, embarking on a rebuilding program that has seen all of Werth’s fellow 2008 champions eventually move along.
For Werth and the Nationals, it was the beginning of everything that Rizzo had foreseen when making the investment after that 2010 season. The Nats have finished first or second each season since, winning the NL East three times.
However, for all the success that the club has experienced, much still eludes them. Washington has fallen short in each of their three playoff series.
They dropped the 2012 NLDS to the Saint Louis Cardinals in five games after capturing the opener. In the 2014 NLDS, the San Francisco Giants took the Nationals out in four games.
Last year, in the 2016 NLDS, the Nationals had a 2-1 lead on the Los Angeles Dodgers. But LA gutted out a pair of one-run victories to once again send Washington home disappointed.
A LAST HURRAH
Now the relationship between the Nationals and Werth is coming to an end. In the final year of that big free agent deal, Werth will turn 38 years old in late May. Three of the top prospects in the organization, including exciting #1 prospect Victor Robles, are outfielders.
The writing is on the wall. This looks like one last go-around, a final season in Washington for Werth. One last shot to reach the ultimate goal of a World Series championship, nearly a decade after capturing one in Philly.
Over his first six seasons in D.C., Werth has put up average numbers. A slash line of .267/.358/.436 with 99 homers, 364 RBI, 415 runs scored, 51 stolen bases. There have been no NL All-Star appearances, no Gold Gloves, no Silver Sluggers.
But to say the signing has been disappointing would be a mistake. The Nationals are very happy with the overall results. They wanted a proven winner who would help them become a contender themselves. That has happened.
Now, in this final season with the Washington Nationals, the team remains a top contender. If Werth can help the Nationals finally reach that mountaintop and win a title, it will all have been more than worth it to all involved.