Now we get to the the third expectation point. This one actually is not confined to a single date but would end up encompassing the time from the start of the season until July 28th. This expectation was that "the Nats would put the Mets in the rearview mirror when everyone got back healthy".
Initially it didn't have to be the Mets, but initially the expectation didn't have to exist at all either. We understood the possibility of a slow start, but anything can happen in a couple weeks so the Nats might instead start out hot and never cool down. Didn't happen. The Nats minus Rendon/Werth/Span started out cold. Meanwhile, rather than the Mets and Marlins (and ok maybe the Braves but they went into rebuild mode in the offseason) fighting it out for the lead, the Mets took control from Game...ok not 1, Game 6. At that point the Mets would start an 11-0 streak and set themselves up as the team for the Nats to catch in the NL East. (The Marlins would go 5-11 and never really be in the race).
At this point that expectation I noted kicked in, and to be honest the problem with it wasn't in the assumption of talent, but the assumption of health. It should have been phrased "the Nats would put the Mets in the rearview mirror IF everyone got back healthy". The idea that in a couple weeks Rendon and Werth would be back and then Span, who was recovering quickly, would follow and everything would be fine turned out to be way off.
4/6 : -Span, -Rendon, -Werth
4/13 : -Span, -Rendon
(4/15 : Stammen out for year)
4/19 : -Rendon
5/16 : -Rendon, -Werth
(5/19 : Fister goes out)
(6/3 : Strasburg goes out)
6/10 : -Rendon, -Werth, -Zimmerman
(6/18 : Fister back)
(6/23 : Strasburg back)
7/7 : -Rendon, -Werth, -Zimmerman, -Span
(7/9 : Strasburg out again)
Rendon's injury would linger seemingly forever, never allowing the Nats to have everyone back. They almost had it for about a month and that time would closely correspond with the Nats best run of the year. They'd go 18-10 with "all but Rendon" specifically and from 4/28 to 5/27 the Nats would go 21-6.
The injuries would keep the Nats from having a consistent line-up. Not only that, injuries would do the same to the rotation, and Stammen going out early meaning the Nats had almost a whole new bullpen to find. This inconsistency would show up in the Nats performances where they would alternate playing well and playing terribly : 7-13, 21-6, 6-14, 12-3
Still the expectation seemed fair based on the assumption of talent. Despite playing middling baseball for 90 games the Nats found themselves 49-41 heading into the Mets series on Jul 20th and holding a 2 game lead. They'd win 2 of 3 and it seemed very clear that this Mets team just couldn't catch this Nats team. Their offense was too anemic. Their bullpen had too many questions. Yes, the Mets would have a couple key players returning from injury in Wright and d'Arnaud, but the Nats had four key players returning all of who hit better than those two in 2014. It seemed pretty safe to assume the Nats would widen their lead.
Then something happened.
On July 24th the Mets traded for Kelly Johnson and Juan Uribe. Then on July 27th the Mets traded for Tyler Clippard. Then on Jul 31st the Mets traded for Yoenis Cespedes.
On offense, the conceit was all the Mets did was add players that were at best only as good as the ones coming back from injury for the Nats, and probably not even that. This might have been true, but this ignored the fact that the guys for the Nats were coming back from injury. You had no idea how they would perform. Johnson, Uribe, and Cespedes you could be fairly sure they would perform around as they performed up until this point in the season. But Werth, Rendon, Zimm, and Span? It was completely possible that they could give you nothing. Yet the fans, fed by the team (it's like we're making 3 deadline deals!), ignored that fact* and assumed they would play as they had in previous years. Based on those now flawed assumption, Nats fans still expected to go right by the Mets once everyone came back on July 28th.
So to recap - the expectation of putting distance between the Nats and the Mets made sense on July 22nd, was questionable on July 24th and even more so on the 27th as the Mets addressed their issues with fixes of more certainty than injury returnees. On July 30th Papelbon would join the Nats giving fans and that expectation a boost, but on July 31st the Mets added Cespedes and that expectation was arguably no longer valid. The next 62 games would be decided with teams who had roughly the same chances of performing well. The Nats may have had the better on-paper talent, but the Mets had far more certainty in their talent. They did not have to rely on four bats (and one arm - Strasburg) performing when they returned, only two.
At that point the expectation should have switched to a dogfight to the end of the season. That would have been fair. Why didn't that actually happen? Well if two teams are of equal standing, anything unexpected could derail (or propel) one team's chances. We ended up getting three of those things.
- We can talk about this in more detail later but the Nats pitching unexpectedly blew up. The relief pitching, which had been pick and choose bad, became across the board bad. Gio and shockingly Max also threw up terrible game after terrible game.
- When the injury returnees for both teams started to hit again in late August, the Nats should have had an advantage, but the Mets had several players really outperform expectations and wiped out that expected advantage
- The Mets swept the Nats in two head to head series. Admittedly, the Mets played better than the Nats this season, especially down the stretch, but you'd expect even the worst team playing the best team to take 1 or 2 games of 6. The Nats go 2-4 in those series and it's a 3 game lead after Sept 9th, not 7.
You ever hear about how people want to get rid of the college football pre-season poll because it sets an expectation that may not reflect reality? That it takes a few games into the season to really get an idea of who is the good and who is the bad but once set, voters are reluctant to really move these teams? How pre-conceived notions influence our thoughts all the way down the line? Yeah, that's kind of what happened here.
We started at a place I'd argue was the right place. A Nats team primed to repeat as NL East champs. But rather than re-evaluate when injuries and bullpen issues came to the fore, both during the pre-season and in-season, we simply adjusted. Oh the Nats were a 95 win team before, so they'll just win a few fewer games. Oh the Nats were a 93 win team entering the season, clearly they'll be a 93 win team when everyone comes back. At any point in the season though we should really evaluate from the ground up. Take a fresh look at the team as it is and for god's sake understand the variability of injuries and old veterans/young players. If we did that we would have been more wary to start the year and we would have seen the coin-flip situation at the end of the year as it truly was.
*I'll note I did try to warn you that things had changed both before and after the Mets series.