After season of highs, Nats' NLDS loss stung

After season of highs, Nats' NLDS loss stung

WASHINGTON -- Evaluating the Nationals' 2016 season is a difficult task. There were so many positives to take away from the year, even though it ultimately ended before they would have liked and left a bitter taste in their mouths.

Washington bounced back from an all-around disappointing 2015 season to win 95 games and the National League East crown for the third time in the past five seasons. The Nationals had a new manager, standout and historic performances from some of their biggest stars and the emergence of a few new stars.

Unfortunately, a few injuries struck at inopportune times and after a thrilling five-game NL Division Series against the Dodgers, the Nationals were sent home short of their goal of a World Series championship. Here are some of the key moments along the way during this past season for the Nationals:

5. An MVP candidate, just not the one we all expected

Bryce Harper stormed out of the gates with a scorching hot April and it seemed as if he was set to improve upon his 2015 season, when he won the NL Most Valuable Player Award. But the Nationals player who would build his case for the MVP Award quickly became Daniel Murphy.

Few could have predicted that Murphy would become the steal of the offseason when he signed with Washington as a free agent, but Murphy built upon the adjustments he made in the second half and postseason in 2015 with the Mets and made himself into a complete hitter. Murphy tied the franchise record for hits and doubles in a season and set career highs in virtually every offensive category to end up finishing second in MVP voting to Chicago's Kris Bryant.

Murphy named NL Silver Slugger

Meanwhile, Harper struggled for much of the remainder of the season, and it is unclear how much injuries may have hindered him. His overall numbers were still solid in 2016, but a notch below the high expectations he commands.

4. Surprise extension and a dominant first half

It seemed increasingly likely entering the season that 2016 would be the final season in Washington for Stephen Strasburg, the franchise's top overall pick in the 2009 Draft and one of the cornerstones of the organization. But in May, Strasburg stunned baseball by signing a seven-year contract extension to remain in D.C. long term, citing the comfort he feels here with his family. And he stormed out to a 13-0 record in his first 17 starts, with the lowest ERA of his career while establishing himself as a legit contender for the NL Cy Young Award.

However, injuries curtailed his season from there, causing him to spend a few weeks on the disabled list in August before ultimately going back on the DL in September with a partially torn pronator tendon that sidelined him for the postseason.

Strasburg strikes out Freeman

3. 'Strikeouts are sexy'

One of the most compelling things about watching Max Scherzer is that he is capable of pulling off something historic every time he takes the mound. While facing his former team at Nationals Park in May, Scherzer put together one of the most memorable performances in MLB history. He matched the Major League record for a nine-inning game with 20 strikeouts during his dominant performance against the Tigers on May 11. Scherzer became just the fourth pitcher to strike out 20 batters in a nine-inning outing, joining Roger Clemens, Kerry Wood and Randy Johnson.

In retrospect, it turned out to be the launching pad in Scherzer's second Cy Young Award-winning season. He did it by leading the NL in wins, innings pitched, WHIP and, of course, strikeouts, because as Scherzer said after that memorable night in May: "Strikeouts are sexy."

Must C: Scherzer strikes out 20

2. Welcome, Trea Turner

The Nationals' center fielders were providing the worst production in the Majors during the first half, after an early injury that Ben Revere never recovered from and a difficult season from Michael Taylor. So the Nats decided to convert Turner from shortstop with a one-week crash course in the outfield, despite the fact that he had never played the outfield before in his career. But Turner's presence jump-started Washington's offense, as he showed off a combination of speed and power that made him one of the most exciting players in baseball in the second half. He played less than half a season, but his performance still earned him a second-place finish for the NL Rookie of the Year Award.

Statcast: Turner runs 19.7 mph

1. Familiar feeling

The season ended in familiarly bitter fashion for these Nationals, who, despite winning a third division title in five years, were unable to advance past the NLDS for the third time. Washington suffered two key injuries in September, first to Strasburg's pronator tendon and then a torn ACL by Wilson Ramos that would leave the Nats without both players in the postseason. Still, they built a 2-1 series edge over the Dodgers and entered the decisive Game 5 at home at Nationals Park with their ace, Scherzer, on the mound on regular rest.

Baker on crushing loss

Ultimately, it was not enough and the Nationals were forced to spend the offseason regrouping, able to celebrate how many things went right in 2016, while also focusing on correcting what went wrong so they can soon take that next step.

Jamal Collier covers the Nationals for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @jamalcollier. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.