And in the fashion of this short and quiet season, there was no one around to acknowledge the end. No one to jeer a 23-33 record if they pleased. There was just a tilted score, 12-3 in the Philadelphia Phillies’ favor, and then a bit of tortured scoreboard watching. Once the game went final and Bryce Harper’s two homers were part of the difference, the Nationals would be eliminated by wins for any of the St. Louis Cardinals, Milwaukee Brewers or San Francisco Giants. It was the Giants’ late 7-2 victory over the Colorado Rockies that finally did them in.
When you spend most of the season losing, you lose control of your future, too.
“It was definitely a challenge with everything going on this year,” Manager Dave Martinez said of how difficult it is to repeat, a question framed by the Nationals’ inability to make a 16-team playoff field. “What I do like is our potential for 2021.”
Erick Fedde had kept the Nationals floating with seven solid innings. But the three runs against him, including two solo shots by Harper, were enough to bury an offense that was puzzled by Phillies starter Zach Eflin for eight innings. Philadelphia, eliminated by the Nationals last September, plated three more runs off reliever Kyle McGowin in the eighth and six more off Ryne Harper in the ninth to steady its own tenuous postseason bid.
The Nationals have been looking ahead for a bit now, ever since Martinez started making notes for next spring training. They hadn’t bought or sold at the Aug. 31 trade deadline. They have 14 players on the injured list, with Carter Kieboom joining Stephen Strasburg, Starlin Castro, Adam Eaton, Sean Doolittle and Tanner Rainey, among others, as finished for the season. They have lightly packed it in.
But beyond the faint chance of advancing — astronomical at best — there were other motives Wednesday. Harper aside, the Phillies have long been division rivals, once packing Nationals Park with busloads of screaming fans. So damaging their playoff hopes was on the week’s agenda. Just listen to what Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo told local radio hosts Wednesday morning, responding to what he wanted the club to get from the close of this year.
“We’re going to play hard until the end and see if we can shatter a few dreams,” Rizzo said on 106.7 the Fan, “and see if we can be kind of a fly in the ointment for some teams.”
On Sunday morning, FanGraphs, a popular analytics website, gave the Phillies an 87 percent chance of making the postseason. But on Tuesday night, after the Nationals swept a doubleheader, using the unlikely heroics of Austin Voth and Yadiel Hernandez, that number dipped to 35 percent. Then Harper and Eflin lugged the Phillies upright.
In the first, after Fedde retired two batters, Harper walked to the plate as faint boos echoed from a nearby rooftop. It was a far cry from the full-throated, full-stadium receptions he received throughout 2019. But it was still a reminder that, yes, he once played here and may never be totally welcome.
Fedde got ahead of Harper with a sinker, low and outside, that Harper fouled off. The trouble came when he tried the same pitch a second time. Harper clocked it out to left-center, into the same seats he had peppered across seven seasons with Washington. The faint boos continued while he jogged the bases.
This was Fedde’s last start of the year and also one of his best. He set the Phillies down in order in the second, fourth, fifth and seventh. He ended the seventh at 103 pitches, handing the game off with the Nationals trailing 3-1. The Phillies’ second run came in the third, once Fedde loaded the bases with one out and the infield couldn’t complete a tough double play. Then it was Harper’s second blast, to almost the same spot as the first, that extended the lead in the sixth.
“The first home run to Bryce, I didn’t like that pitch. So, I mean, he punished it,” Fedde said before breaking down a low-and-outside curveball: “The second one, that’s a pitch on my scouting report I like and I think I can live with. He gets paid a lot of money, so sometimes you’re going to get beat there.”
The Nationals had manufactured a run in the fifth, inching back within 2-1 when Yan Gomes doubled, advanced on a wild pitch and skipped home on Luis García’s RBI groundout. Eflin, though, held them down before yielding a two-run homer to Juan Soto in the ninth.
In 2019, in a season that ended with a World Series victory, the Nationals were known for miracle comebacks. Last September, they erased a six-run, ninth-inning hole to beat the New York Mets. Last fall, as they blazed through the postseason, they won five elimination games despite trailing in each one. But this team was never that team. Some players left, others opted out, many suffered season-ending injuries to make the current roster — the group trudging through this finish — a shell of the Nationals’ vision.
So there was little pushback once the Phillies separated themselves Wednesday. Infielder Brock Holt was needed to notch the last out of the ninth. Soto’s late homer could only dent a yawning deficit. And the spoilers, that fly in the ointment, could only do so much.