As this Nationals season winds toward the end of April, its similarity to that 2015 season — which, of course, ended in memorable debacle — has been something of an elephant in the room. “Feels like” doesn’t always mean much in a sport like this. The feel of things can change with the bounce of a ball. Seasons grow into lifetimes of their own and include nearly as many twists and turns. But in the way it has fostered doubt and second-guessing, in the way chances to take games keep slipping away, this season feels a lot like that one — at least from the outside. Will it stay that way? Or will this team, experienced enough to know what doesn’t work in situations such as these, be able to change the narrative in time?
That team batted expectations back and forth through the obstacle course of its reality, unwilling to edit them to account for the injuries that left them looking more like a rebuilding team than a contender. They lost Denard Span and Anthony Rendon to injuries in March, and both took far longer to heal than expected. Their left fielder, Jayson Werth, was coming off a shoulder injury that limited him more than he expected. Ian Desmond and Zimmerman were struggling, so Harper was effectively carrying the offense early — and doing so without much protection. That team watched as the New York Mets emerged as a no-expectations, no-pressure group that suddenly looked like a World Series contender, too. In the end, that is exactly what the 2015 Mets were.
These 2018 Nationals aren’t the same ones that earned World Series expectations, either. Without Rendon, Adam Eaton and Daniel Murphy, their lineups have looked more suited to West Palm Beach in March than Dodger Stadium in April. They have a relatively young manager with a relatively short track record, like Matt Williams, although he had been named manager of the year after the previous season. They had a calamitous home opener, as did that team. Their bullpen has lost multiple games, their offense unable to muster the big hit early. Nine of their first 11 losses came by three runs or fewer, meaning that group lost even more close games than this one has early — and it feels like this group has endured several close losses already. They have had to look up at the surging Mets all the while.
That team had a signature win that was supposed to turn everything around: the stunning comeback against the Braves on April 28 in which Dan Uggla etched himself into Nationals history. That game helped morale but didn’t start a cure-all winning streak. This team has had a signature victory, its biggest comeback to a win since 2016 — in the eighth inning against the Mets last week at Citi Field. That game felt like it should have cured everything and, indeed, the Nationals won the next night, too. Then they let a lead of their own slip away in the finale, and won one of their next five games.
This team has a better bullpen, but close losses have required unsustainable work loads of key late-inning pitchers Brandon Kintzler and Ryan Madson. That team had to hunt for a closer at the trade deadline, and came up with Jonathan Papelbon. This team shouldn’t have to hunt for a closer — just middle-relief help — and that could make a huge difference. The acquisition of Papelbon, after all, seemed to foretell more bad than good that season, and did.
The manager of that team was bound to routine, so much so that when things went wrong, he tried to keep everything — mind-set, mantra and his buffer against the clubhouse — the same. This team’s manager is more willing to tinker, in constant communication, though his players have shown signs of frustration, too. Frustration is the norm in seasons like these. The key is patching up the fraying parts, like Dave Martinez said he and Gio Gonzalez did after Gonzalez’s postgame comments this week.
Ultimately, this team is not that team, no matter how similar it feels. This team will be adding Eaton, Murphy and Rendon to its lineup soon. This team has a closer, and strong seventh- and eighth-inning options, too. Even those 2015 Nationals were back to .500 by early May, and in first place by late May. They simply couldn’t sustain the push, fell apart internally and finished seven games back in the division. As of now, this team feels a lot like that one — injured and underperforming, showing frustration but downplaying urgency. Will it still feel that way next month? Or a few months after that?
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