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Know Your Enemy: Washington Nationals

The Nats came achingly close to the NLCS last year.

Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

SCOTTSDALE, Arizona — When talking about the Nationals, it always comes back to Dusty Baker.

Dusty’s managing wasn’t the reason the Nats lost their division series to the Dodgers. Or was it? He actually took out Max Scherzer at the point most managers would — six innings, 99 pitches, after he’d just allowed a homer bringing the Dodgers to within 2-1.

Would Scherzer have closed the deal? The Nats bullpen blew the game. On the other hand, Scherzer has a knuckle injury that “developed late last season” that has kept him away from workouts. That link says he might not be ready for Opening Day.

That’s not Dusty’s fault. Probably. Scherzer threw 228 innings for the second straight year, and he’s shown he can handle the workload and...

All right, I’m going to stop blaming Dusty. Probably.

Baker has always seemed to be a manager who can let his players go mostly on autopilot through any regular season, then doesn’t seem to understand that playoffs are a different animal. Baker’s record in the postseason is 19-26, one of the worst marks for any manager who has as many big-league regular-season wins as he does (1,766, and only two managers who have more and are eligible aren’t in the Hall of Fame: Gene Mauch, another poor postseason manager, and Lou Piniella).

Dusty will have new players at two positions this year. Adam Eaton, acquired from the White Sox, will take over center field, and the just-signed Matt Wieters will catch. Wieters is decent enough, but the Nats will miss the departed Wilson Ramos behind the plate, I think.

The Nats might be deep enough in their rotation to make up for Scherzer being absent for part of the early season. Stephen Strasburg. Tanner Roark, Gio Gonzalez and Joe Ross are a solid group, and A.J. Cole, who made eight starts for Washington last year, will get a shot.

The Nats dealt for Mark Melancon in an attempt to do what the Cubs did (get a lockdown closer), but in the end it didn’t matter and he left as a free agent. They tried to sign Kenley Jansen, but he decided to stick with the Dodgers. Here’s what Dusty said about the Nats’ closer issue about two weeks ago:

“Without a real, bona fide closer, somebody always emerges,” Baker said, seemingly confident the answer would become clear in time. But one part of Baker’s thinking needs no clarification.

“I don’t like [closer]-by-committee,” said Baker, reiterating a previously stated aversion to that approach, “because when the phone rings I want guys to know, mentally, when they might be in the game.”

If only he had felt that way during a certain season about 13 years ago. Sigh.

Like I said, it always comes back to Dusty. The Nats should be a strong contender to win this division with what they have, though they will be challenged by the Mets if New York’s pitching holds up.

Meanwhile, after the Cubs frustrated Bryce Harper by walking him 13 times in that series at Wrigley last May, Harper didn’t hit well. Following that game through season’s end Harper hit .238/.358/.395 with 14 home runs in 408 at-bats. Good, but certainly not what the Nats need out of him.Cubs vs. Nats in 2017:

June 26-27-28-29 in Washington
August 4-5-6 at Wrigley Field