Ryan Zimmerman just went on the injured list, and Anthony Rendon ought to join him there Monday. Trea Turner’s right index finger is still in a splint, and Jeremy Hellickson got lit up. The bullpen just threw eight innings of scoreless ball to put on pause the central theme of the Washington Nationals’ season, which is that the relievers are terrible and it doesn’t matter whom they roll out there and there’s no hope.
And then Matt Adams steps to the plate to lead off the 11th on a pleasant Sunday at Nationals Park. And Juan Soto already has hit a three-run bomb, and Victor Robles not only has started a rally from a six-run deficit by diving into first base to beat out a groundball but also has gone deep, and Carter Kieboom has homered for the second time in a major league career that is three days old. Makes you put all other logic and evidence aside and allow yourself to think, “Maybe bad starts are just bad starts.”
“I think we’re going to get on a roll,” Adams said, “and we’re going to forget that this April even happened.”
After Adams’s walk-off homer that provided a 7-6, 11-inning victory over the San Diego Padres crashed into the third deck, that sentiment seemed feasible, ready to be embraced, nurtured and coerced into the coming days, weeks and months. The reality: It’s fleeting, with an expiration date of 7:05 p.m. Monday, when the first-place St. Louis Cardinals step into the box for the first of four at Nationals Park. It’s not even May, and it’s hard to breathe.
Adams’s homer — and the stellar effort from the bullpen, beginning with what looks to be an overhauled version of Erick Fedde, whose day began in Class AA with a 3:30 a.m. wake-up call in Hartford, Conn., and ended with four scoreless innings here — prevents more dread from piling on this decidedly uneven April for the Nats. Spring training began with the idea that the World Series is reachable, even winnable. At 12-14 with May beginning midweek, Adams was quick to remind everyone, “If that wasn’t the goal, I don’t think the 30 of us would be here.”
Slow starts can be overcome. The 2018 Los Angeles Dodgers were 16-26 and 8½ games back in the National League West in mid-May and won the pennant anyway. The NL East, predicted to be a gantlet, is off to a sputtering start, with only the Philadelphia Phillies more than a game above .500, no one more than three games ahead of the Nats. It’s a long season. Nothing has been decided.
But if you have had trouble convincing yourself to remain in the it’s-early-they-will-come-around camp, that just means you have watched Nats baseball for, oh, the past decade. The Nats are front-runners who love to coast when the going’s good. They have plenty of history enduring a bumpy start. They just have no history of overcoming one.
Can a comeback victory spark a winning streak?
“Hell, yeah,” said Soto, who continues to be a reason to purchase a ticket and find a good seat. “We’ve been playing good ball since the first day.”
Uh, well, no, because the first day was kind of a disaster against the New York Mets, a 2-0 loss in which they committed all the little sins they spent the entire offseason saying they had repented for. They still haven’t won more than two games in a row. With eight losses in nine series openers on the year, the tenor of the season — exactly a month old Sunday — has been catch-up, catch-up, my goodness are they ever going to catch up?
There’s added weight in that feeling because the Nationals have never really caught up before. In the four seasons they won the NL East — 2012, ’14, ’16 and ’17 — they enjoyed smoldering starts each time, a remarkable .646 winning percentage through the end of April, on pace to win 104 games, all but unsustainable. Those seasons ended with 98, 96, 95 and 97 victories. More important, the path: It was, essentially, without late-summer pressure. In those bound-for-October years, the Nats last sat somewhere other than first in the division race May 25, July 18, May 11 and April 15, respectively.
So when the Nationals are good, we pretty much know they are just that — if not by now, then certainly by a month from now. When they’re not . . .
Since baseball returned to Washington in 2005, we have never had the pleasure of a deep-into-September pennant race. In the gap years — 2013, ’15 and ’18, when the Nationals missed the postseason — they have had a losing record at April’s end each time, .456 ball in aggregate. Those years, they were out of first for good by April 6, Aug. 2 and June 10, respectively, and they were never within three games of first in September.
It’s early in the baseball season. It never seems to be early for the Nats.
Now, those teams aren’t this team, in ways both good and bad. Adams’s homer was important to avoid a sweep, but the real reasons to show up — to (and be careful with this) hope — are Soto, Robles and Kieboom. Never before had three teammates age 21 or younger homered in the same game. On Sunday, the trio did just that.
“These guys are exciting,” Manager Dave Martinez said, and there was, indeed, an energy in the crowd of 30,186 as the kids led the comeback.
So here they are, with one win in a row. This team hasn’t earned the credibility to have us buy in that it’s a season-changer. At some point, maybe even Monday night, we’ll know.
“Like I told them, I know they can do it,” Martinez said. “. . . I told ’em after the game, ‘We’ll build off of that and move on — and here we go.’ ”
He was speaking about the bullpen, but it applies to the whole roster. And, man, if it were that simple. Here come the Cardinals, then a 10-game trip through Philadelphia, Milwaukee and Los Angeles, all home to teams with playoff aspirations.
The Nationals’ next real winning streak will be their first. Their bullpen has been good for one day in a row. Here we go. To what, no one knows for sure. The Nats of the past have never flipped a season around. The Nats of the present will have to. Sunday would be a perfect starting point. We just can’t be sure that it is — yet.