The Washington Nationals did just about everything right this season -- until their final inning.
They had the best pitching in baseball, especially the starting rotation. But the starters and bullpen struggled in the Division Series against the Cardinals, as did the offense. And even though the Nationals came within one strike of advancing to the next round, they do have a few holes to fill.
But the bottom line is this: The Nationals are a team that grew a few levels in 2012. They were one of the best clubs in baseball this year --leading the majors with 98 wins and losing to the Cardinals in the NLDS proved to be learning experience that should push them to a higher level next year.
"It was a fun ride, a lot of character," Nationals manager Davey Johnson said. "I really enjoyed managing them this year. You know, I've been on the other end of the stick where just one out and you move on. We couldn't get it. We had the right people there, just got a little too cautious."
Their pitching was great, and their hitting improved when several players returned from injuries. The combination of hitting, pitching and defense was too much for opponents until the playoffs.
The pitching had some surprising troubles against the Cardinals and got banged around in the first three games and the finale. The Nationals decided to shut down ace starter Stephen Strasburg in a controversial move that got national publicity. It wasn't a surprise but upset a lot of people. Still, the other four starters had pitched well until Edwin Jackson struggled at the end.
The Nationals must decide about re-signing Jackson. They'll have Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann and Ross Detwiler back. Can they lure another tough starter -- or will they go after Jackson? That's their big pitching decision.
Jackson was inconsistent throughout the year. One more consistent starting pitcher would make this group as tough to hit as any in baseball.
The bullpen was solid all year. Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen give manager Johnson a good setup/closer combination.
Washington also must decide a few other positions.
Michael Morse missed more than 50 games because of injuries but still had some good moments. Do the Nationals believe Tyler Moore played well enough off the bench to take over in left from Morse?
Should they re-sign first baseman Adam LaRoche after his terrific season? If they don't, they could move Morse to first and put Moore in left or vice versa. If they do re-sign LaRoche, they might have to consider trading Morse because they're not going to want Moore to be a part-time player forever -- and he showed this year he can hit.
Steve Lombardozzi is the other bench player who should get more playing time. He was solid this year in left field when Morse sat out and when Jayson Werth missed three months. But his natural position is second base, and Danny Espinosa started there most of the season despite not hitting as well and again striking out a lot.
The bottom line is the Nationals are a team with few weaknesses and holes. They learned a few painful lessons about postseason play this year. They grew up a little after their shocking Game 5 loss to the Cardinals, in which St. Louis scored four runs with two outs in the ninth to win it. Washington figures to do just as well next season.
"We've been really good all year," Johnson said. "Just having a little hiccup here at the end."