MIAMI — Mike Rizzo didn’t sit still — because how could he? — as the Washington Nationals took another small step toward what they have always thought, or at least always hoped, was possible this season.
Rizzo, the Nationals’ general manager, watched a 7-5 win over the Miami Marlins from a quiet box hanging three levels above and behind home plate at Marlins Park on Wednesday night. He sat. He stood. He gripped the back of his rolling chair. He typed into his iPhone. He leaned forward as it got way too close, when the Marlins mounted a last-ditch four-run rally in the ninth, and had a cigar behind his ear just minutes after the victory.
This was, after all, just one of 162, another game, a stressful win against a team Washington is expected to beat. Patrick Corbin turned in seven dominant innings, giving up one run and striking out nine on 100 pitches. Matt Adams punctuated the Nationals’ crooked sixth with a three-run homer. They tacked on three runs in the ninth and, because Javy Guerra gave up a run and loaded the bases, needed closer Sean Doolittle to record the final out. Doolittle first gave up a three-run triple to Curtis Granderson.
Then he struck out J.T. Riddle to give Washington a chance to sweep the last-place Marlins on Thursday.
“We’re showing up to the ballpark ready to work, and just taking it game by game,” Adams said following the win. “We’re not looking too far ahead.”
But each result carries a lot of weight these days.The Nationals, Wednesday’s win aside, are still very much at a crossroads. They are still one game below .500 at 39-40. They are still eight games behind the Atlanta Braves in the NL East. They are still middling, remodeling, more defined by how bad they started than what their response has been.
That all creates a conundrum at this point on the calendar, with the all-star break nearing and decisions still to be made. When a club goes 19-31 through May 24, and then 20-9 in the month since, someone has to stare down the trade deadline and craft an immediate plan. And that someone, now and always, is Rizzo, who built the Nationals and will ultimately decide what’s next.
At the start of this season, when optimism was passed around by the bucketful, it was easy to see Washington buying before the July 31 deadline. The Nationals poured close to $196 million into their roster. They added Corbin, the best starting pitcher on the free agent market, on a $140 million deal. Their World Series aspirations were warranted. But that logic changed once they stumbled through April, then stumbled through May, then needed this season-saving stretch to even think about a push.
Now their options are clear: The Nationals continue on their current pace, or something close to it, and convince Rizzo and ownership they’re worth additional investment. Or they flop, going into the break and coming out of it, to trigger the kind of sell-off seen last August. Howie Kendrick, Adams and Brian Dozier are all veterans who could be attractive to contending teams. Anthony Rendon’s expiring contract makes him a trade candidate, too, if this goes south.
There are nuances to consider — like their soft upcoming schedule, or that new rules do not allow any player movement after July — but Rizzo’s calculus remains simple. He is evaluating across the next few weeks, with the rest of Washington’s top officials, and will let the results dictate his approach.
“We’re here to win as many games as we can,” Rizzo said before Wednesday’s victory. “We’ll see where we’re at, and we’re going to make our decision, what we’re going to do at the trade deadline, depending on what we see and how we’re playing.”
Rizzo is encouraged by incremental bullpen improvements that hardly showed Wednesday. He feels that bringing on Fernando Rodney and Jonny Venters, two veteran relievers with a combined age of 76, provides needed depth to a banged-up staff. He has seen improved defense since Trea Turner and Rendon returned from the injured list in May. And it is those developments, among others, that make him believe in this product when others may not.
Yet buying or selling comes down to playoff chances, which will soon become slightly clearer, and which will also require some guesswork. Rizzo couldn’t say definitively, standing in his box before Wednesday’s game, whether the Nationals will add or subtract moving forward. All he could do was express confidence and, with his elevated view, keep assessing this team.
The Nationals couldn’t solve Marlins starter Zac Gallen for five innings Wednesday, striking out eight times, before they punished the rookie in the sixth. They poked three straight singles to tie the score at 1 before he was hooked. Adams crushed the game-changing homer off lefty reliever Wei-Yin Chen.
The four runs in that inning seemed as if they would be more than enough for Corbin and the bullpen to protect. Corbin was effective and efficient other than in the third, when he allowed Gallen to single and score with two outs, and turned in a second consecutive standout start. The bats did what they needed to. The bullpen barely held and, once the last six outs were tallied, Rizzo got up and headed toward the visiting clubhouse.
“We’re not at July first yet, we’re not at the all-star break, so we’ll see where we’re at,” Rizzo said at the start of the night. “And together we’ll sit down and have a clearer picture of what we want to do, and how we’re going to attack the 31st.”
Except July 1 is now one day closer, and so is the all-star break, and so is the time for Rizzo to pick a direction for this franchise and see where it leads.