They were on balconies, on roofs, on Half Street — on a Sunday afternoon walk — before stopping to peer through the blue gate beyond center field. They held binoculars, small radios, drinks to toast the end of another week or another baseball season or both. They were, by no official count, the three dozen fans who caught the last glimpse of these Washington Nationals, the team tasked with defending a title amid the novel coronavirus pandemic.
And for the final time in 2020, they weren’t allowed inside.
It was one of many parting reminders of an odd summer: Nationals Park was empty from start to finish. Only nearby hotels and apartments offered in-person views. The Nationals played 60 games like this, stuck in an eerie quiet, and have just a 26-34 record to show for it. Their closing result, a 15-5 win over the New York Mets, did nothing to shift the playoff picture. Neither could Juan Soto taking the National League batting title with a .351 average. Washington has to settle for improving next year.
“That’s a good question. I don’t know yet,” Manager Dave Martinez said when asked how he felt in the moments after a sideways season. “For me, I’m really happy that no one’s gotten real sick.”
His team has been slowly splitting up for weeks now.
Under this season’s health protocols, in an effort to limit crowding, injured players are not allowed at club facilities. So once Stephen Strasburg had year-ending carpal tunnel surgery in August, he cooped up at home in suburban Virginia. Starlin Castro did the same in Miami after having a pin put into his broken right wrist. Sean Doolittle hung in Washington, rehabbing his strained oblique at an off-site facility, then watched games about 10 minutes from the park.
Doolittle’s last day in the stadium was Sept. 11, when he made a visit to the trainer’s room. But he didn’t say his goodbyes then, to his teammates, to the clubbies or security guards at the door. He figured he would at the end of September — on Sunday — when the schedule capped and each locker was packed up. But he didn’t get the chance.
“When I left that Friday night, when I limped out of there, that was the last time that I was going to be in that clubhouse with those guys,” Doolittle recalled. “I was focused on my injury at the time. I wasn’t thinking about it in those terms yet.”
Endings, however sneaky, make it logical to look back.
The absence of those mentioned above — Strasburg, Castro, Doolittle — made it harder to succeed. They were eventually joined on the shelf by Howie Kendrick, Adam Eaton, Tanner Rainey and rookie Carter Kieboom, among others. Nearly another whole roster filled the Nationals’ final injured list.
But Washington still underachieved in controllable ways.
The starting pitching was subpar. A thinned lineup never took shape around Soto and Trea Turner. The bullpen was fine, if prone to an occasional collapse, and the defense will need a lot of work in the spring. For now, though, Martinez is turning to the positives. He hadn’t changed in the 24 hours after signing a multiyear extension Saturday.
“When I go home now, I really need to just focus on what I’ve seen that was good and build from there,” Martinez said Sunday afternoon. “And then come back. I told the guys: ‘Hey, let’s remember what we did in 2019. Don’t worry about what we did in 2020.’”
Those bright spots were folded into Sunday. With one hit in two plate appearances, Soto edged Atlanta’s Freddie Freeman for the NL batting title. He did so in 47 games, inviting dissent, but posted MVP numbers whenever he played. And just before Soto exited in the third, with the gap already widening, Turner punched the Nationals’ first grand slam of the season. It gave Washington an 11-3 advantage. It gave Turner six RBI before the Mets recorded their seventh out. The star pair was at it again.
Soto led the league in on-base percentage, slugging percentage and, therefore, on-base-plus-slugging percentage. He is 21 years old and just finished his third major league season. Turner, 27, led baseball with 78 hits and was one of its most productive hitters. They are two reasons for the Nationals to feel good about the future.
“It’s a little different because we just played 60 games,” Soto said, speaking specifically of his batting title even if he could have been discussing any element of this year. “And I didn’t get to play all the 60 games. But I just feel good about it because you see how consistent you have to be to win it. That means you got to be consistent the whole two months.”
Other reasons for optimism, in loose order, are Strasburg, Max Scherzer and Patrick Corbin returning to the rotation; Rainey, Will Harris, Daniel Hudson and Kyle Finnegan returning in the bullpen; Luis García getting a chance to build on his experience this year; and, to a far lesser extent, Andrew Stevenson making a strong case to be the fourth outfielder in 2021.
Stevenson ripped two doubles, worked two walks and made a diving catch Sunday, ending his season on a 12-game hitting streak. He was promoted Sept. 18, right after Eaton fractured his left index finger, and he used every last bit of his chance. He recorded an extra-base hit in eight of his final nine games. He became Martinez’s everyday lead-off hitter. Martinez promised that, when mapping a roster this winter, Stevenson’s name will be in the mix. And that’s a reminder that not everyone lost.
Then there’s the group that may not play for Washington again.
It includes Doolittle, Kendrick, Eaton, Aníbal Sánchez, Kurt Suzuki, Asdrúbal Cabrera, Michael A. Taylor, Javy Guerra and Ryan Zimmerman, who opted out of this season in late June. They were all on the World Series roster last October. They were in the parade down Constitution Avenue that stood as the only real celebration that team got. They are a part of Washington baseball history.
Yet none of them received the usual send-off Sunday, when they would have ambled off the field, maybe stopped in the grass, tipped their cap or thrown a ball into a sea of outstretched arms. Instead, at the end of whatever just happened, they blew out the Mets and disappeared. They went to the clubhouse, they showered in shifts, they put this season in boxes and looked straight ahead. There was nothing else to do.
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