The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Nats have shaken off slow starts before, but this one seems to raise bigger questions

Kyle Schwarber, right, is greeted by Josh Bell after hitting a two-run homer in the first inning. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

By the box score, Thursday afternoon’s game was what the people who built the 2021 Washington Nationals would prefer them to look like. The reclamation projects who double as major offseason acquisitions, Kyle Schwarber and Josh Bell, both hit two-run homers in the first. The starting pitcher, Patrick Corbin, threw seven innings in which he walked no one, struck out nine and yielded just one run. Manager Dave Martinez called on the best reliever he had available, Daniel Hudson, to record the game’s most important outs: a strikeout of Bryce Harper and a groundout from Rhys Hoskins to end a threat in the eighth.

All of that provided a perfectly pleasant 5-1 victory over the Philadelphia Phillies at Nationals Park, a win that doubled as a tourniquet. Maybe that becomes the blueprint. Maybe that sends them off on a road trip to Arizona and Chicago that turns the season around.

“I’ve said it before: We’re too good to be playing the way that we have,” Martinez said. “ … Guys, their history’s too good to not come here and be able to perform the way they’re used to doing. I think it’s just a matter of time. I think it started today.”

“I don’t view this team as a last-place team,” Schwarber said. “It’s too talented of a team to be that.”

That will be determined in the coming weeks and months. But even if Thursday’s victory propels the Nats toward a run back to .500 and beyond — they’re still five games below because they had lost seven of their previous eight — this is a franchise approaching a critical juncture. Not just in its season, but in its organizational trajectory.

Josh Bell has thought long and hard about social change. In Washington, he’s ready to act.

The Nationals used 12 players to beat the Phillies on Thursday. Five of them will be free agents after this year: Schwarber, Hudson, second baseman Josh Harrison, third baseman Starlin Castro and catcher Yan Gomes. Bell and shortstop Trea Turner are signed only through 2022. They’re not alone. Ace Max Scherzer, first baseman Ryan Zimmerman, closer Brad Hand, fourth starter Jon Lester, backup catcher Alex Avila and utility man Jordy Mercer are all without contracts beyond this year.

Viewed one way, that’s a lot of flexibility. Viewed another, that’s a lot of pieces — of all manner of importance — that could be moving. Most of the farm system’s best prospects are closer to their draft years than their big league arrivals. There aren’t in-house solutions for many — any? — of those possible vacancies.

So there are fundamental, summer-long questions. Whether Turner and franchise outfielder Juan Soto can be signed to extensions is central. But so is: Who else should be part of a contending core in years to come?

That is Mike Rizzo’s charge. Since the Nationals first became postseason contenders in 2012, the general manager and his front office have been sellers at the trade deadline only once — in 2018. Even then, they did so halfheartedly — dealing Daniel Murphy, Gio Gonzalez and Brandon Kintzler but squelching a deal Rizzo had in place for Harper, the star free agent-to-be, because ownership couldn’t quite stomach it. In every other summer, Washington has tried to add pieces. Doing that annually creates better postseason rosters. It also takes a toll on a player development system.

Analysis: What the Nats-Yankees series revealed about Dave Martinez’s bullpen vision

Now, there’s evidence, though not conclusive, that the current roster isn’t built to contend. The Nationals average 3.58 runs, better than just two teams in baseball. Stephen Strasburg is working his way back from injury. Who knows how he’ll pitch — and how much he’ll pitch — once he returns?

Is there enough here? There’s time to discover.

“We know that we’re a good team,” said Bell, whose 1-for-3 day lifted his average to .140, his on-base-plus-slugging percentage to .528. “We know that we are a force to be reckoned with when things are right with us. It’s just a matter of time that things come together, we get hot as a team.”

With this franchise, the recent precedent of shrugging off a slow start resonates. But it says here the less these Nationals make you think about the version from the spring of 2019, the better. That 19-31 start — and the ensuing turnaround — should be treated as a relic and a rarity.

And yet, some people can’t help themselves.

“I sat back last night for a while there and I thought about the Milwaukee series in ’19,” Martinez said before Thursday’s first pitch.

Let’s stop that right now, before even going over the three-game sweep at the hands of the Brewers that left the Nats 14-22 — exactly where these Nats would be with a three-game sweep in Arizona. Anyone who lived through 2019 cherishes it all, and we know — because there are T-shirts that remind us — that bumpy roads can, indeed, lead to beautiful places. But what’s wrong with finding some smooth pavement?

“I wish this wasn’t happening again,” Martinez said. “But it’s upon us, and we got to get through it — and we will get through it.”

That’s the manager’s nature, and the manager’s charge: be positive, and support his players. He did that late Wednesday night after he saw too many slumped shoulders and bowed heads following a disheartening 10-inning loss to the Phillies. So he played a card a manager can play perhaps twice a year: the postgame pep talk.

“Hey, forget about everything that’s happened up to this point,” Martinez said he told his guys. “Come out today and try to go 1-0 today. You can’t do nothing about the past. Just remember that we’re never out of it. You guys have shown that. You guys are relentless.”

And then they allowed a run to the Phillies in the first — on a double steal in which Andrew McCutchen could have been nailed at the plate, but Bell made a sloppy throw from first.

If it feels like these Nationals are always playing from behind, like they never have a rocking-chair inning — much less a game worthy of putting the feet up on the ottoman and truly kicking back — it’s because all that’s true.

Before Schwarber and Bell hit their first-inning bombs Thursday, the Nats had played 288 innings this year. They led by multiple runs at the conclusion of just 51 of those frames — less than 18 percent of the time. That can wear on an entire dugout. Thursday was the 20th time in 33 games the Nats’ opponent scored first. They’re now 4-16 in those games.

All these stats and circumstances, they bring up questions to consider: Is this a good lineup enduring a team-wide slump, the kind all franchises endure at some point in a spring or summer? Or is it something more foundational?

“You look at guys at the end of the year, and you’ve got guys that have .800-plus OPS, .900 OPS, [high on-base-plus-slugging percentages] — everything,” Martinez said. “These guys, they’re going to come out of it. I know they are.”

They might. Thursday, they did — and that’s a start. If it continues, we’re in for a fun summer. If it doesn’t, then the decisions become less about 2021 and more about next year and beyond: Who stays, and who goes?