MIAMI — Before the Washington Nationals’ 4-2 win over the Miami Marlins on Tuesday, members of the Major League Baseball Players Association visited the Nationals’ clubhouse and handed out ballots for its players’ choice awards, an annual tradition.
Players hollered out names to each other, asked for spellings and solicited suggestions. Perennial preseason MVP contender Bryce Harper joked with Juan Soto, who is in a heated race with Atlanta Braves outfielder Ronald Acuna Jr. for rookie of the year.
“I’m voting for Acuna, man. Sorry!”
Soto laughed and laughed before jabbing back at Harper, “Wow, what a guy!” The two joke with each other regularly, two of the few players in recent baseball history to be on those kind of ballots so young.
But amid the joking, and in the way the Nationals’ lineup utilized its many weapons to win the game that followed, hid a reality of the team’s season that cannot be overstated. The Nationals are dripping with talent, enough to challenge for postseason awards on all fronts, enough to lead the league in a variety of categories if all goes well. And yet, even after that win, this team remains just a combination of five Braves wins or Nationals losses from elimination.
One of the subtler award candidates in that clubhouse, less talked-about than Soto, or than Max Scherzer’s Cy Young push, is Adam Eaton. Eaton missed most of the 2017 season with a major knee and ankle injury that lingered, caused spinoff trouble and cost him the early part of this season, too.
Since he got healthy and started playing regularly again in June, Eaton has played himself into legitimate comeback player of the year candidacy. He entered Tuesday night hitting .291 with a .380 on-base percentage that would rank him 17th in baseball if he had enough at-bats to qualify.
Through two innings Tuesday, Eaton was 2 for 2. The second hit came with two on and one out in the second and drove in a run. The Nationals scored again when Trea Turner, who has less of an on-base knack than Eaton and has therefore lost leadoff at-bats to him this year, executed a perfect squeeze bunt to score Wilmer Difo.
A few innings later, Marlins pitcher Tyler Kinley hit Turner in the head with a pitch, one that knocked off his helmet and sent him to the ground. He was fine, and said later he felt no pain. A few moments later, he stole second base, his 40th steal of the season. He leads the majors. He and Eaton reached base four times and scored two runs.
“That’s something we bring to the table, when both [Eaton and I] can get on base and wreak havoc,” Turner said. “Even if we don’t have big innings, it’s tough innings. They have to make great pitches to the guys behind us to get out of it.”
The guy directly behind Turner is Harper, who walked in all five of his at-bats, the most any National League player has walked in a game this season. He needs one more walk to tie his career high of 124, which is somewhat remarkable given he endured a frustrating first half in which his trademark patience seemed to wane. Even after that start, only five National League players have a better on-base percentage than Harper does this season — and his is climbing. If Soto had enough at-bats to qualify, there would be six players ahead of him.
“I told him, ‘You might be the first player that has more walks than hits, so keep going,’ ” Nationals Manager Dave Martinez said. “It’s just the way it is. Why get yourself out? They don’t want to pitch to you? Then take your walks and be that teammate and that’s what it is, just being a better teammate and getting on for the next guy.”
The next guy is Rendon, who drove in two runs and reached base safely for the 27th straight game. Rendon builds the statistical résumé to be an MVP candidate year in and year out, though he lacks the profile. This year, he has slid into obscurity among Harper, Scherzer, and more recently, Soto.
The whole evening passed without much other reason to mention the 19-year-old rookie, who went 0 for 5, which feels like an eternal slump given his recent reliability. The expectations built for this team were built without knowing what Soto could give it. Now he might be the most likely player in the clubhouse to win postseason hardware.
“I think we’re a team with a lot of length. We’re pretty dangerous all the way through,” Harper said. “Pick your poison of anybody in the lineup.”
Stephen Strasburg finished as a finalist for the NL Cy Young last season, but after a season in which he was felt more in his absence than his presence, Strasburg said he now considers himself a work in progress. At one point Tuesday, Strasburg recorded eight straight outs via strikeout, and he finished with 11 in six innings of two-run ball. Those 11 strikeouts tie a season high, the third time this year he has reached double digits.
Last year’s NL comeback player of the year, Greg Holland, pitched a scoreless eighth. All-star closer Sean Doolittle threw a scoreless ninth. The Nationals won for the eighth time in 12 games, one of their best stretches of the season. While they tease each other about postseason awards, crossing their fingers that Soto and Scherzer and others will win them, they also know that with all that talent, they should have a lot more to play for these days.