The central dignity of the game is not in its skill or craft, not in its agility or power, not even in grace under pressure or playing with pain. That dignity resides in the miserable daily onslaught of unexpected maladies and misfortunes, some of which boggle the mind in their grotesque improbability but all of which must be ignored instantly and totally. Baseball is the game in which, every day, you take responsibility for everything that has befallen others yet is not your fault.
Next Hercules up.
Many teams in many seasons get struck numb by bad news. But because the Nats got clobbered from Day 1, they bring into focus a kinship between them and us. If you want a superpower, here’s one you might get just by deciding to have it: “Is that all you got? Hit me again.”
Stubborn resiliency has limits. But as the Nats show, we can absorb and recover from far more than we know.
Then, for the first series of their season, against arch-division-rival Atlanta, they had to play 10 men down — nine because of the virus and another (reliever Will Harris) with injury. Their next three games, a continent away in Los Angeles, were against Earth’s best team. They still didn’t have Josh Bell, Kyle Schwarber, Josh Harrison and others.
How can you play your hardest, win on a come-from-behind walk-off hit on Opening Day but still start 1-5? Easy: Lose 1-0, 2-0, 3-0, 7-6 and 9-5. Thanks, covid-19.
To show how hard it is to remove such rust, Max Scherzer allowed a homer to the first hitter of the season and to four to the first 10 men he faced. Since then: one tainted run in his next 24 innings.
By the time most of the pandemic platoon returned, some after two weeks without so much as an exhibition game, most were a mess and some still are.
Patrick Corbin, the $140 million lefty, gave up 16 runs in his first 6⅓ innings. Key acquisitions Schwarber and Bell tore up Florida with 10 homers; two weeks off cooled them, and they’re hitting .200 and .161, with one homer each.
Since the Nats’ “re-opening” day, once they had a semblance of their team back, they’re 6-4, even as they have had starters knocked out after allowing 10, 10 and eight runs. That will shred the back of your bullpen.
Strasburg and Soto have shoulder strains bad enough to show on MRI exams. Neither has a timetable for his return. Minimum 10 days. Maybe 15 or 20? Take a ticket.
How can this team possibly be 7-9? Count the ways.
Schwarber’s only homer was the second-longest walk-off blast of the Statcast era — 463 feet onto the Nationals Park right field concourse, a spot never before reached — for a 1-0 win. With a bigger first bounce, the blast might have hit the huge mural of Max right in his blue — or brown — eye. Luckily, it didn’t, or the picture might be on the IL.
No one in their right mind wants to build character through pain. Better to be virtue-less but win the lottery.
But if the Nats ever get healthy — and they may not — and the rest of the high-spending or very talented teams in the NL East don’t run away with the division race, this is going to be one ornery team to shake off your tail.
Asked whether he took satisfaction in being 7-9, Manager Dave Martinez said, “I’d much prefer being 9-7 — over .500. Like I just told ‘em again [after Wednesday’s 1-0 win]: Keep playin’, keep grinding. That’s who we are.”
To the Nats, for the past decade, that has always been the focus: Concentrate on playing the game right, every game, every pitch, and never complain. Of course, it doesn’t always work. The mini-2020 season was a bust.
But small-bore vision is the only way to ignore the absences of Soto and Strasburg, as well as that of fourth starter Jon Lester, a 193-game winner who is still one more rehab start from returning after his quarantine.
The list never stops. The bullpen is without two of its five best arms, Suero and Harris, whose 2.85 career ERA is the lowest on the staff, including Scherzer.
Yet right now, if a crystal ball said Strasburg’s injury is just one of his familiar miss-a-few-starts snags with no lasting effects, there would be very little about this team that time — and a couple of more weeks — wouldn’t fix.
Then we look forward to Lester’s arrival as well as more of the good work that Joe Ross and Erick Fedde provided in three of their five starts.
MLB’s 162 games often seem to contain several seasons within them. As with the Nats in 2019, we do not see one team but several different forms of that team, healing or crumbling, evolving or dissolving.
The Nats, as the critic chorus, including me, will tell you, have a rotation with some graying beards and a defense that could make the Pope curse. But if relief arms don’t fall off before Harris and Suero return, they have the potential for an excellent bullpen — two years after the nightmare of ’19.
Free agent lefty Brad Hand, Daniel Hudson and Harris have all been closers. Suero, like Harris, has reverse splits, which make him almost a southpaw. Tanner Rainey and maybe Kyle Finnegan, too, have power fastball-slider combos, plus the occasional change-up, which resemble Hudson’s arsenal, though the vet has better command. Add multi-inning ex-starters Fedde and Austin Voth.
What the Nats did with their gritty 7-9 start is provide themselves a chance to grind out another 7-9 stretch — or the like — as they wait for reinforcements to return.
They say you play 162 games so that the breaks have time to even out — if you can survive that long.
Year after year, the teams that take responsibility, without complaint, for all the problems that are not their fault are the ones that endure and usually prosper.
So far, the Nats have done it. Now, baseball says in its unpleasantly lifelike way, see whether you can do it again.
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