The beer machines are unplugged, pushed to the middle of the concourse, some wrapped in plastic that’s tearing at the edges. A condiments station has stale ketchup pooling on an uncleaned counter. It’s possible for a single bird feather to stay in the same spot, right across from an overstocked team store, unmoved by the usual foot traffic of thousands of fans. It happened during the last homestand. Around the bend was a still-hanging schedule for 2019.
So the autopsy is coming for a club that never made sense of baseball’s oddest season. The Nationals are 17-28 and, as of Monday, three games back of the New York Mets for fourth place in the National League East. Their mathematical shot at the playoffs is a mind-bending equation. They ran into injuries, poor pitching, uneven offense — then ran out of answers before a short respite from their spiral.
But that came too late and ended with back-to-back losses to the Atlanta Braves this past weekend. Rizzo then took a moment to get a head start.
“We see that there’s certain players that take to the start and stop of the season different than others,” Rizzo said Sunday morning, offering one reason his team has underachieved. “You saw the successes we had in 2019 of having a veteran-laden team that played together through the good times and the bad times. We navigated that 162 plus the playoffs very, very well. And I think you saw the start and stop adversely affect those same type of veteran players.”
The injuries piled up fast and never stopped. Stephen Strasburg faced 23 batters before he had surgery for carpal tunnel neuritis in his right hand. Starlin Castro, signed to start at second base, broke his wrist Aug. 14 and soon had season-ending surgery. In the bullpen, the Nationals lost left-handers Roenis Elías, Sam Freeman, Seth Romero and Sean Doolittle in that order, with Doolittle recently straining his right oblique. And while they aren’t shut down for the year, Howie Kendrick and Javy Guerra remain on the injured list with hamstring issues, and reliever Tanner Rainey is dealing with forearm tightness.
That has all made it significantly harder to win. So has training back in February and March, shutting down for four months, then ramping up in three weeks for a 60-game schedule. But every team has dealt with both factors, and the Nationals’ healthy players are not absolved.
Entering this week, Washington’s starters had a 5.59 ERA, the fifth-worst mark in baseball. Its overworked bullpen, once a bright spot, is now below average in many statistics. The offense has two premier hitters in Juan Soto and Trea Turner, who have turned this summer into personal batting practice. But the rest of the lineup has slumped too often, with Kendrick fighting hamstring pain, Asdrúbal Cabrera regressing in the cleanup spot and Victor Robles not taking the next step at the plate.
The year has also been a chance to see two rookie infielders and take stock for the future. Carter Kieboom and Luis García have had their struggles, too.
“I’m not here to be critical about the team; we’re not playing as well as we’d like,” said ace Max Scherzer, who has a 4.04 ERA in 10 starts. “But the moment you say that, you better look yourself in the mirror and ask: ‘How are you doing?’”
A big part of the autopsy will be retooling for 2021. Doolittle, Cabrera, Kurt Suzuki and Ryan Zimmerman will be free agents. Kendrick, Adam Eaton, Aníbal Sánchez and Eric Thames have either mutual or club options that Washington could decline. The Nationals will probably look a lot different in a few months. They could also get a whole lot younger.
The team Rizzo built in 2019 — older, sturdy, stocked with veterans who had been there and done that — had trouble with the physical demands of sprinting through the novel coronavirus pandemic. That was evident on the club’s injury list. It was evident in the sagging production from veterans Cabrera, Eaton and Thames. Eaton, for one, has found it hard to find consistent energy in empty stadiums. He is certainly not alone.
“Just kind of finding that adrenaline,” Eaton said in late August of what’s missing without the usual crowds. “I’m kind of an adrenaline junkie, getting ready for the game, getting pumped up and getting going. For me, it’s been kind of hard to find that type of rhythm again with no fans.”
On Sunday afternoon, after the Nationals fell to Atlanta, Manager Dave Martinez was asked how his team stacked up to the first-place Braves. The Nationals went 4-6 against them this year. It was a worthwhile measuring stick. The Braves are front-running again, have done so for a few years now and could soon be in the World Series mix. They hide a bumbling rotation with a stacked lineup and lights-out bullpen. The Nationals can attest to those strengths.
Martinez’s answer gave an early window into his assessment of 2020. This season was always going to be wacky. The results are distorted by a fun house mirror. As far as title defenses go, there’s a case to be made that the Nationals can try again next spring. No one around their team is explicitly saying that. They just know that while much of July, August and September were in their control, some elements weren’t.
“I look at them … if we had our regular lineup, if we had Strasburg here with us, I think we match up really well,” Martinez said before peering ahead. “I truly believe a healthy Nationals, moving forward, that we can compete with them, that we can compete with anybody.”
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