Dusty Baker was supposed to be back next year.
All along, that was the plan. Even though he didn't get a contract extension last offseason, after winning the National League East in his first year in D.C., that was the plan. Even though he didn't get an extension during his second season, when the Washington Nationals ran away with the division en route to their first-ever back-to-back playoff appearances, that was the plan. Even though his two-year deal expired when Washington lost to the Chicago Cubs in the NL Division Series -- the Nats' fourth first-round exit in four tries -- that was the plan.
"We're both confident that he'll be back with us," general manager Mike Rizzo said of Baker the day before the NLDS opener. "But we haven't had any conversations about it, and we will not do so until we finalize this season."
Baker made it no secret that he wanted to come back. People within the organization thought it was merely a formality.
"If 95 and 97 doesn't get it done, then what does?" said one Nationals insider, referring to Baker's win totals in his two seasons with Washington. "It'll happen."
Until it didn't happen.
Based on virtually every single indicator from the beginning of spring training right up until the beginning of the playoffs, Washington's Friday afternoon announcement that Baker would not return for the 2018 season comes as a complete shock. Based on Baker's 1,863 career wins (most among active skippers and 14th all time) and the level of respect that his players appeared to have for him, the ouster comes straight out of left field. But based on what went down during Washington's latest fall failure? Not so much.
To recap, the Nats came into their NLDS showdown with the Cubs as the higher seed. Again. And they lost in a heartbreaker of a Game 5. Again. And said loss came at home. Again.
As gut-wrenching as last year's Game 5 defeat to the Dodgers was, this year's loss to the Cubs made last year's loss seem positively uplifting. In a 4-hour, 37-minute marathon that set a record for the longest nine-inning playoff game in MLB history, the following happened: Baker brought Max Scherzer into the game as a reliever in the fifth inning and watched as the Cubs batted around against the Nats' ace and scored four runs to take a 7-4 lead that they never gave up on their way to 9-8 win. Speedster Trea Turner was thrown out at home plate on a ground ball to Javy Baez, who was playing extremely shallow at second base. Veteran left fielder Jayson Werth, whom Baker lifted late in Game 4 for a defensive replacement, lost a ball in the lights, which led to a run. And the backbreaker of all backbreakers: With two on and two outs in the eighth and Washington trailing by a single run, Jose Lobaton was picked off first base by Cubs catcher Willson Contreras, a play on which he was originally ruled safe but, after video review, was called out.
Sure, any one of those things could have happened on the watch of any big league skipper. But the bottom line is, they happened on Baker's watch. As did the whole Stephen Strasburg train wreck wherein Baker announced that, despite a Tuesday rainout that would've allowed Game 1 starter Strasburg to pitch on normal rest in Wednesday's Game 4, the Nats were going with Tanner Roark because of reasons that may have included Strasburg being sick and/or his normal between-starts schedule being disrupted. The team then changed course on Wednesday morning, announcing that Strasburg would start, but only after what turned out to be a huge PR circus. All that, combined with Baker's increasingly infamous postseason resume -- he has never won a World Series in 22 seasons as a skipper and has now lost an MLB-record 10 straight playoff elimination games -- was apparently too much for the Nationals to swallow. To much for Rizzo, and too much for the Lerner family, which owns the team.
Although Rizzo didn't come out and say that Game 5 and/or his club's latest NLDS upset resulted in Friday's announcement, he more or less implied it.
"After Game 5, we assessed where we're at and we're going," Rizzo said. "We thought after Game 5 that this was the decision to make."
It's not clear if the Strasburg debacle had anything to do with the decision. But what's entirely clear is that Washington's inability to survive and advance -- again -- had everything to do with it.
"We've come such a long way in the Nationals organization," Rizzo said. "In 2009, we were hoping to improve our record from 2008. In 2012, we were hoping to make the playoffs. And now, our expectations have gone to the fact that winning a lot of regular-season games and winning divisions are not enough. Our goal is to win a world championship."
Whether another manager can lead Washington to the promised land remains to be seen. But clearly, right or wrong, Rizzo and the Lerners were convinced that Baker couldn't. And so now, right or wrong, he's gone.
Even though that was never the plan.