You could have told me the Nats would be 8-16 now — not 12-12, as they are — and eight games out of first place in the division — not tied at the top — and I would have believed it.
Down nine players on Opening Day because of the pandemic and its protocols, then hit with mid-April injuries to Stephen Strasburg, Juan Soto and others, the Nats have built a raft from driftwood floating past, lashed together with Yadiel Hernandez, Sam Clay and Hernán Pérez. They have turned flotsam, jetsam, Joe Ross, Erick Fedde, all-but-gone Ryan Zimmerman and Josh Harrison into .500.
What’s wrong with the Nationals? Nothing.
How do you fix it? Don’t.
This is the way remarkably memorable seasons start. That doesn’t mean you go deep into October. But teams that start the way the Nats have, and still hold lots of firepower in reserve for when they finally get healthy, often win a lot more games than predicted. And have fun, too.
For a month, we’ve seen stolen wins in weeks that had to be survived, that test a whole 40-man roster. Except the Nats dug deeper than that. If you were semiretired but walked down South Capitol Street with a glove, you might catch Max Scherzer that day. Jonathan Lucroy did — well, close enough for poetry.
In a six-month baseball marathon, narrative and anecdote fight the mental exhaustion that builds during the season. The shared celebrations, and especially the contributions of players who were dumped by other clubs, who thought their MLB odysseys were over, add to the buoyancy and resiliency of the whole group. You don’t duplicate Baby Shark; you create new parables.
Every season needs its unique identity, its ugly hockey helmet rally hat or its Pérez with his 0.00 ERA in two emergency relief spots, built on 55-mph blooper pitches and imitations of pitching greats, from the Mad Max mound strut to the Luis Tiant back-turned windup to Fernando Valenzuela’s sky gaze.
Yes, Pérez, who isn’t a pitcher, has taken the mound as often as Strasburg. Zimmerman, who seemed retired last year, has more RBI (10) than Soto (eight).
This was the spring when Kyle Schwarber, a genial Paul Bunyan, gave gracious interviews despite slumping and hitting only two home runs. Yet those blasts were some of the longest walk-offs hit in recent decades — 463 and 454 feet on chilly April nights. In August, those balls are stopped by security at the Navy Yard for an ID check.
The Nats are tied for the NL lead in batting average. Who are their five leading hitters, with a combined .340 average? Cuban expat Hernandez, who didn’t know if anybody wanted him this year. Harrison, a utility man turned full-time second baseman, who is second on the team in total bases. Lucroy, presumed retired. Zim, who spent his opt-out season losing 20 pounds and 10 years. And Jordy Mercer.
The team leader in RBI (13) is Starlin Castro, who was hired to play second but, in the spirit of the season, is now at third.
The Nats have one of the best bullpen ERAs, helped by useful work by team-leader-in-appearances Kyle Finnegan, lefty Clay, all-slider-all-the-time Kyle McGowin and Austin Voth. Patrick Corbin’s ERA is 8.10; Paolo Espino’s is 2.84.
It’s a good thing Dave Martinez can’t motivate or cast out gloom or convince the halt and the lame that they have Olympic potential, because you could have fooled me. Give him Tres Barrera as one of his Opening Day catchers, tell him lefty Jon Lester won’t be available until the last day of April and that workhorse Wander Suero will miss weeks with an oblique strain, and he decides that, as long as he has a pinch hitter like Andrew Stevenson, what can stop his Nats? So what if pitcher Ross has as many RBI as center fielder Victor Robles? Work around it.
Scherzer, after a complete game Sunday, could have worn the helmet, but he had just raced off to the hospital to be with wife Erica, having a (scheduled) childbirth. “I’ll take over for him [being interviewed]. Now he owes me a babysitting night,” said Zimmerman, adding, “I’m not sure I want Max babysitting our kids.”
We don’t know how good the Nats are yet because we haven’t seen the team as designed. But assuming Strasburg and Soto get over their cranky shoulders — as the Nats say they are on track to do — and Suero and Will Harris return, those answers should come soon.
The Nats’ offense, with the third-fewest runs per game in the majors, needs Soto’s example of patient satisfaction with a walk almost as much as it needs his production. Despite missing 10 games, Soto still has nearly as many walks (10) as Trea Turner, Castro and Schwarber combined (11) in their 268 plate appearances. Schwarber, whose walks are a key piece of his game, has chased himself into a 23-to-4 strikeouts-to-walks ratio.
The flaws are easy to find. Scary defense on the right side of the infield. Half of the pitching staff, including many of the best pieces, past 30 or even 35. A lack of depth to the lineup unless Robles returns to his 2019 form. And a lack of homers — for now. That probably changes.
Why? The Nats’ offseason additions — Bell and Schwarber — will pay off. Just watch. (My crow-eating contest will be held June 15.) At 28 and healthy, they should still get to roughly their on-base-plus-slugging level of 2017 to 2019 — .829 with 31 homers per year for Schwarber, and .836 with 89 RBI per year for Bell. That, plus Soto and Turner, is enough of a mid-order for a team to win 90 games if it has quality pitching.
That’s where a high Nats ceiling arrives. How many teams have six starters pushing for five spots as the Nats do, plus Voth looking capable, too? The bullpen — with Brad Hand’s wicked slider, Daniel Hudson, Tanner Rainey, Suero and Finnegan — is solid. If Harris, with issues about puffiness in his fingers, makes it back anywhere near his previous form, this bullpen could be the Nats’ best ever.
That’s a dozen quality arms. This is a team that can go down a starter — or two. Or a reliever — or two — and still function. The Nats just did it.
Chapter 1 of six months, or maybe seven, is in the books. When the Nats could have been knocked down, or at least been on the ropes, they were a tough 12-12. Part virtue, part luck. Part smart judgment in amassing a 40-man roster that could take a big left hook to the jaw from April.
Now, after four straight wins, minus two of baseball’s most famous players, the Nats are off the canvas. Before long, we will see if they can deliver a punch.