The Top 25 Baseball Stories of 2015 — #6: The Nationals choke. Literally.

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We’re a few short days away from 2016 so it’s a good time to look back at the top 25 baseball stories of 2015. Some of them took place on the field, some of them off the field and some of them were creatures of social media, fan chatter and the like. No matter where the story broke, however, these were the stories baseball fans were talking about most this past year.

There weren’t a ton of certainties entering the 2015 season but one of them was that the Washington Nationals were going to waltz to the NL East crown. The were just too talented not to.

Nationals GM Mike Rizzo made a big splash into the free agent market during the off-season, signing starter Max Scherzer to a seven-year, $210 million contract and bolstering what was already a great rotation alongside Jordan Zimmermann, Stephen Strasburg, Doug Fister, and Gio Gonzalez. The lineup looked pretty imposing too, with Anthony Rendon coming off a fine season, Denard Span, Ian Desmond and Jayson Werth seemingly set to continue their solid play. A healthy Ryan Zimmerman was returning and with Bryce Harper one year older and, finally, fully healthy, was back to lead the way as well.

Between all of that and the fact that the Braves and Phillies were rebuilding, the Mets seemed to lack the pop to go along with their young, untested pitching and the Marlins, well, being the Marlins, there didn’t seem to be a greater lock in all of baseball than “the Nats will a ton of games and take the division in a cakewalk.”

Which made the Nats’ complete and utter implosion all the more sensational.

On the surface it looked like mere underachievement and injuries were sinking the Nationals. It was learned toward the end of the season, however, that beyond those things, the Nats’ clubhouse was in total chaos. As detailed in in an amazing article from Barry Svrluga of the Washington Post, general manager Mike Rizzo and manager Matt Williams lost this team totally and completely with the personnel moves of the former and the managerial style of the latter.

Williams demonstrated poor management of the bullpen which, in addition to putting the wrong guys in the wrong situations tactically speaking, alienated players and put them into a position where they were less likely to succeed. He likewise failed to communicate with players about their roles and playing time, leading to an intense exchange with Jayson Werth in which the Nats’ outfielder ripped up one of Williams’ lineup cards in front of his face and said to his manager,“when exactly do you think you lost this team?!”

For Rizzo’s part, his trade for Phillies’ closer Jonathan Papelbon roiled the clubhouse. Partially because it meant a demotion for closer Drew Storen, who had, in the past, showed that he was far less effective as a setup man than as a closer. Partially because a lot of people in baseball simply don’t like Jonathan Papelbon. On that count, the sentiments of the Nats’ clubhouse were shown to be pretty darn reasonable.

As the season wound down, Papelbon and the Nationals were playing the Orioles in what was, for all intents and purposes, a meaningless game. In the game Papelbon threw a pitch at Manny Machado for no good reason. After the game Bryce Harper took public issue with Papelbon throwing at Machado, noting that it was meaningless to do so and musing that, in all likelihood, it meant that he now would be thrown at by the Orioles the next day in retaliation.

A week later, in a totally meaningless game between the Nats and Phillies, Harper popped out and didn’t sprint the play out before the ball was caught. Papelbon went after Harper in the dugout. Papelbon later claimed to be trying to correct a young player for not giving 110%, but this was clearly in retaliation for Harper calling out Papelbon the week before. And it was far more than a calling out. Things got physical:

In a testament to his total lack of leadership all year, Matt Williams claimed he didn’t see this happen, even though he was standing in the dugout as it went down. What’s more, Harper was removed from the game and Papelbon, somehow, was left in to pitch the ninth inning. Eventually the Nats realized how insane this was and suspended Papelbon for the rest of the season. The would-be team leading veteran Papelbon is currently filing a grievance against the Nats for his pay being docked in the season’s final few games.

If there was any shot of Matt Williams keeping his job after the season, this incident killed it. He was fired immediately after the team’s final game. Hired to replace him: Dusty Baker who, whatever else you can say about the guy, always maintained harmonious clubhouses in his previous managerial stints. He’s got a big job ahead of him.

For all of that strife, the Nats finished above .500, winning 83 games and finishing seven games back of the Mets. Bryce Harper had a monster season and won the MVP award. Max Scherzer dominated NL batters, tossing two no-hitters. Both of those guys are back for 2016. So far this offseason Rizzo is addressing team depth and added Daniel Murphy to take over second base. All of that talent that caused the pundits to pick the Nats to win the 2015 NL East crown is still there. The Phillies and Braves are both sure-shot losing teams in 2016 and the Marlins are, well, still the Marlins. For the Mets part, they are the defending NL champions, but they haven’t exactly been tearing up the pea patch in the hot stove league. An injury or two, especially to the pitching staff, could totally transform the contours of the pennant race.

Against that backdrop, will the pundits once again pick the Nats to win the division next season? Or is there too much fear that, once again, they will . . . choke?