This was supposed to be the Washington Nationals team that topped them all: a superstar slugger in center field, dominant starting pitching and what General Manager Mike Rizzo called a “three-headed monster” at the back of the bullpen.
Yet after three straight losses — including two on backbreaking walk-off home runs — Washington trails Atlanta by eight games in the National League East and is six games out of the last wild-card spot.
Rizzo, during his weekly appearance on 106.7 The Fan’s “Sports Junkies” show, said Wednesday he finds it all a bit twisted.
“I really like the way we’re playing baseball, too,” he said. “That’s the ironic part of it.”
In some respects, Washington is playing great baseball.
The Nationals are outscoring opponents by more than a run and a half per game in the season’s second half. Max Scherzer is 5-2 in 10 starts with a 2.38 ERA. Since winning the Home Run Derby last month, Bryce Harper is batting .329 with a blistering 1.108 OPS. In Tuesday night’s loss to the St. Louis Cardinals, Washington’s lineup featured six players hitting better than .250.
But there have been other issues. Scherzer and fellow starter Stephen Strasburg had a verbal exchange in the dugout. Reliever Shawn Kelley spiked his glove after giving up a homer in what was otherwise a blowout victory over the New York Mets and Rizzo quickly traded him.
Gio Gonzalez, expected to be a stopper in the middle of the rotation, is 1-5 in nine starts since the all-star break with a 6.09 ERA. In five of those starts, he hasn’t gotten through the sixth inning.
With Strasburg on the disabled list, every Washington starter besides Scherzer has an ERA in excess of 4.50, and six relievers are also on the DL, including all-star Sean Doolittle and trade deadline acquisition Kelvin Herrera.
“It’d be tough to find any team that has the depth to survive losing your closer, your setup man and your bridge to the setup man, and have to throw kids,” Rizzo said. “You could see the lineup taking shape, but it hurts when you can’t finish games because of injuries at the back end of the bullpen.
“The injury factor, that’s frustrating because that’s something you can’t control.”
Those absences have hurt the Nationals, especially recently, when both Doolittle and Herrera would have been called on to finish tight games. Instead, Manager Dave Martinez handed the ball to Ryan Madson (now on the disabled list, as well) on Sunday against the Cubs. He surrendered the game-winning grand slam to Chicago rookie David Bote.
The next night against St. Louis, starter Tommy Milone and front-end relievers Wander Suero and Justin Miller protected a lead through 7 1/3 innings. But Sammy Solis, who had a 5.24 ERA this season before being sent down to Class AAA Syracuse on Tuesday, blew the save without recording an out. Greg Holland, with his 7.07 ERA, kept the game tied and recent call-up Koda Glover (5.40 ERA) lost it in the ninth.
With 42 games to play and Washington seemingly finding every which way to lose, Rizzo said the Nationals’ “window” to win a championship is still open, even with Harper, Gonzalez, infielder Daniel Murphy and catcher Matt Weiters set to become free agents after this season.
Rizzo seemed to suggest the Nationals were leaning on Juan Soto and top prospect Victor Robles, also an outfielder, as the franchise’s future rather than Harper.
“Our windows are wide open. You’ve got a 19-year-old rookie of the year candidate. You’ve got a 20-year-old Robles in the wings. You’ve got an anchor at third [Anthony Rendon] and a young player at short [Trea Turner] and two stud pitchers in the front and a stud pitcher in the back,” he said. “We’ve got a fertile farm system that keeps feeding good players to us each and every year. We’re creative in the trade market and in the free agent market. We see this team being good and athletic in the future and winning a lot of baseball games.”