DETROIT — The trade deadline passed late Wednesday afternoon with the Washington Nationals cast as passive observers, not prepared to dismantle their roster but nowhere near good enough to add to it. They did nothing but cling to the hope their lost season will make an about-face, a hope that dimmed on the field at Comerica Park. Another bleak loss dropped them in the standings, and another listless performance suggested recurrence more than reversal.
The end of July, the precise two-thirds mark of the season, provided the Nationals a moment to take stock. Their punishing, 11-1 drubbing at the hands of the Detroit Tigers — which somehow began with the Nationals putting their first three hitters on base against Justin Verlander — topped a bleak tableau: a 52-56 record, 11games behind the first-place Atlanta Braves, 71 / 2 games out of the second wild-card spot, unfulfilled promise rippling through the clubhouse and no help on the way.
And then Bryce Harper pierced the malaise with a fiery, optimistic message he aimed at both teammates and a manager who earlier in the day had conceded the Nationals lean more “bust” than “World Series.” After Gio Gonzalez submitted his worst start as a National, the offense fizzled again and another rock-bottom candidate surfaced, the 20-year-old spoke up.
“We got our [butts] kicked for two games,” Harper said. “That’s something you don’t want to have happen. But you got to have heart. That’s the biggest thing right now. You got to play with heart. You got to play as a family. Everybody’s got to want it, starting with the manager on down — everybody. Everybody wants to win this and keep going.
“We need to get going and play better, hit better, have better ABs in certain situations and pitch better, also. It’s just something we need to do. We play the Braves nine games. This [season] ain’t over. I really don’t think it’s over. We just got to keep going, keep grinding and turn into the family that we were last year.”
On Wednesday morning, before Gonzalez gave up 10 runs in 31 / 3 innings, Manager Davey Johnson reflected on how his team reached this morass. For a reference point, he used the moment in early December when he sat in a Nashville conference center and uttered the phrase that once defined the Nationals’ confidence and now mocks their swagger.
“I don’t regret saying, ‘World Series or bust,’ ” Johnson said. “It looks more like bust. This is my last go-around anyway. What I want to do is what’s best for the organization. I want this ballclub to continue being a first-division ballclub. The Lerner family has done that. [Mike] Rizzo has done that. We’re just not holding up our end on the field. They’re going to run me out of here anyway. But I am optimistic with this team.”
After the game, Harper expressed the need to close ranks and find positivity among teammates and the coaching staff, including Johnson. Harper said he had noticed a dearth of “heart” and a “family” atmosphere for a while but felt as if he lacked the clubhouse standing to say so.
“Absolutely,” Harper said. “I’m not the one to speak on it. I try to be a leader, but I’m younger. There’s things we can do better. I think everybody knows we’re a better team than we’re showing right now.
“We just need to be a family again. That’s the biggest thing. It all starts with having good camaraderie in the clubhouse. Having an upbeat clubhouse every single day. Having an upbeat manager and staff every single day — no matter what.
“We could be 10 games out, but we got two more months. We got two more months of baseball, and if we play like we’re capable of playing, we will win this. We will do it. I know that for a fact because we have a great team and a great organization. And we have guys on this team that are unbelievable. We just need to keep going, keep grinding and do the things we need to do.”
Rousing statements did not appear necessary at the start. Denard Span walked, Harper roped a single and Ryan Zimmerman plugged the bases with a walk. Jayson Werth crunched a sac fly deep to right field, his NL-best 22nd RBI in July pushing the Nationals ahead, 1-0.
The Nationals let their rally go to rot as Adam LaRoche struck out for the first of three times Wednesday and Ian Desmond grounded to short. They would fumble more rallies but not score again. In 30 of their 108 games, including their last two, the Nationals have scored one or zero runs.
Has frustration started to seep in?
“No,” LaRoche said. “I mean, that was two months ago. We were scratching our heads two months ago trying to figure out what was going on. Again, we find it for a couple days, and then it’s gone.”
Gonzalez needed far more support. He had allowed nine earned runs over his previous six starts. On Wednesday, he allowed 10 runs on 10 hits. Gonzalez, for some reason, could not find comfort on the mound and struggled with his arm slot. His typically lethal curveball was flat and erratic, and he constantly pitched behind in the count.
“You’re bound to run into one hiccup,” Gonzalez said. “Just so happened to be against a good team. I faced some pretty good teams. This ain’t going to dictate who I am as a pitcher. I’m going to go out there and keep pitching how I pitch and try to get more wins for the team.”
Alex Avila bashed a two-run homer and Torii Hunter followed with a solo shot in a five-run second inning. The menacing Tigers lineup, even without Miguel Cabrera, battered Gonzalez with more subtlety in the fourth inning, ripping five straight singles. As the liners and flares fell, Gonzalez grew more agitated, standing on the mound rolling his head and throwing his hands in the air. Johnson showed mercy and lifted him after Victor Martinez’s single made it 9-1.
Johnson was not ready to declare the season a full-fledged wreck, even if a 4-9 record since the all-star break has left the Nationals’ division chances on life support. He and Harper could agree on that.
“We do have the talent,” Johnson said. “We’re not out of this thing. We’re still in this fight. I like the way our schedule is racking up the rest of the way. We can do similar to what the Dodgers did. I like my talent here, too.”