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Nationals close the season how they opened it: By losing to the Mets

Nationals Manager Dave Martinez takes the ball from starter Erick Fedde after the right-hander failed to make it out of the third inning in the final game of the season. (Frank Franklin II/AP)

César Hernández and Lane Thomas were both in the starting lineup for Washington in its season finale at Citi Field in New York, a small fact that earned the pair the distinction of being the only two Nationals to start April’s season opener and Wednesday’s closer.

Being on the field for the bookends of a 107-loss season is testament to staying power — and to the roster tumult that such a campaign brings. Hernández and Thomas took up different positions in the 9-2 loss to the Mets than they had in April, a 5-1 loss at Nationals Park, but they were present for the start and for the end, which came after a two-hour rain delay on a gray afternoon in Queens.

The losses were the most in club history; 59 of them came against the NL East, a division they had dominated during their dominant run of the past decade.

“This division’s good, this division’s going to be tough,” Manager Dave Martinez said. “In order to compete, we’ll need some pieces but we’re going to give an opportunity to our younger players. And what I saw from our younger players is that they’re not afraid. And they’re going to go out there and compete.”

‘A terrible year,’ Nationals GM Mike Rizzo says. Yeah.

Erick Fedde’s final start was short and included nine earned runs in just 2⅓ innings. In the first, he allowed a three-run homer to Mark Canha. In the second came Francisco Lindor’s three-run double before James McCann blasted another three-run shot in the third. Terrance Gore — who hadn’t recorded a hit since 2019 — singled in the third to end Fedde’s outing. Fedde’s season ended 6-13 with a 5.81 ERA.

Hernández, playing third and hitting sixth, went 1 for 4. Thomas, who led off and played right field, finished 0 for 4. Alex Call hit a two-run homer in fifth to account for Washington’s runs.

The rest of Martinez’s lineup was made up of three players who were in Class AAA Rochester to open the year (Luis García, Joey Meneses and Ildemaro Vargas). Another started with High-A Wilmington (Israel Pineda). The remaining three were with different organizations when the season began (Call, Josh Palacios, Luke Voit).

It was a stark contrast to the beginning of the season, when hope sprung that a lineup of place-holding veterans could produce until the team’s young prospects were ready. At best, the offense was expected to hit for power with a core of Hernández, Josh Bell, Nelson Cruz, Maikel Franco, Keibert Ruiz in his first season and, of course, Juan Soto.

But the team went through cold spells at the plate for long stretches of the season. Only Bell and Soto hit for power, but even Soto never quite found his rhythm at the plate. Cruz struggled for most of the season and he’s been sidelined for nearly a month with eye inflammation and will require surgery. Hernández, who hit 21 homers in 2021, hit just one this season.

They were hardly alone in their struggles. But

that’s not to say there weren’t bright spots. The bullpen performed well as the Nationals took gambles on injury-plagued relievers that paid off.

The silver lining, of course, is that some of the Nationals’ young core got meaningful reps in the majors, even if there were growing pains. Ruiz improved as a game caller and showed flashes of potential at the plate. CJ Abrams, acquired in the Aug. 2 deal with San Diego that sent Soto and Bell to the Padres, and García have established a double play duo up the middle.

Josiah Gray flashed at points on the mound with strong breaking pitches, though his propensity to allow the long ball is a cause for concern. Cade Cavalli made his debut, though the excitement was dampened by shoulder inflammation that kept him out for the remainder of the year after just one start. But Gray, Cavalli and left-hander MacKenzie Gore — who rehabbed from elbow inflammation after coming over in the Soto/Bell trade — should form the core of next year’s rotation.

“Our starting pitching needs to get better, that’s for sure,” Martinez said. “Our season’s over right now, for the players. But the work is just beginning for myself, (General Manager Mike Rizzo) and the front office. We got a lot of work to do to get to spring training. I’m looking forward to this winter, getting things done and being ready for spring training.”

And while this season provided glimpses of the future, it also left a handful of questions unanswered. To name a few: Will Victor Robles — who suffered a groin strain Tuesday — find himself at the plate? Will Patrick Corbin regain the form he pitched at in 2019? Will Stephen Strasburg ever pitch again? Can any of them contribute to the team’s next playoff run?

The answers to those questions will play a large part in determining just how quickly such a run will come. Rizzo reiterated his message Tuesday afternoon that he’s seen the bottom of a Nationals rebuild before. And he’s right. Rebuilds take time. Hernández and Thomas were there at the start and end of 2022. Who will be there at the end of this rebuild?