On Friday night, the Washington Nationals trailed the Chicago Cubs by one after six innings when ace Max Scherzer left the game. Then a familiar thing happened . . . if getting bitten by a rattlesnake, carried into the sky by a tornado and buried in an avalanche are familiar. Three different Nats relievers worked the seventh, eighth and ninth innings. Each allowed a home run to Kris Bryant. The Cubs scored 11 more runs.
On Saturday, I joked to Washington Manager Dave Martinez and General Manager Mike Rizzo, separately, that the team should buy seven round-trip plane tickets to Fresno, Calif. All of the team’s relievers, except Sean Doolittle, should fly out. Seven pitchers off the Class AAA Fresno Grizzlies should fly back to D.C. In a week, flip ’em.
“Why not [nearby] Harrisburg?” a bystander asked.
Give ’em five hours, each way, to think about ways to never see Fresno again.
Neither Martinez nor Rizzo got mad. One just shook his head. Sometimes you say outlandish things to measure the response. When an entire bullpen, excluding its closer, has an ERA of 7.73 — two runs worse than the next-worst bullpen ERA and more than twice the bullpen ERA the team expected — you can say any mean wiseguy thing and it is endured because . . . that is the bottom.
Or it better be.
If you make a chart of the 2019 ERAs of every member of the Nats’ bullpen as well as their 2018 ERA and their career ERA, it’s enough to make a GM’s head spin.
“It’s almost impossible,” said Rizzo, looking at such a list.
The pre-2019 ERAs of the bullpen (excluding Doolittle, who is 2.83) include: 2.96 (382 games), 2.99 (328), 3.54 (127), 3.59 (40), 4.48 (133), 3.67 (580) and 3.21 (227).
This year, entering Sunday night’s 6-5 loss to the Cubs, those same relievers were 13.50, 36.00, 8.55, 5.82, 4.02, 6.00 and 4.86.
In long major league seasons, you look for turning points. They often come when players — or entire teams — cannot possibly continue to play so insanely well or so incredibly badly. Then you predict a change of fortune and hope you look smart. Usually, it works. Unfortunately for the stinkin’ rotten Nats, it’s not always true.
That said, the worst of the worrying is over for these shoelaces-tied-together Nats. Maybe that’s like telling someone as he is being blindfolded that it won’t hurt long after “Fire!”
Things are going to get much better for the Nats between this coming week and the all-star break. Otherwise, you will see big changes at Nationals Park, such as a new manager.
Bet on better.
As easy as it is to mock the Nats now — only four major league teams have worse records — it may be just as easy to overrate them in seven weeks. Enjoy the fun but be careful.
By the break, the Nats probably will be in the battle for first place in the National League East. They have endured the spring decimation of their lineup and a bullpen so bad that its failure is statistically unsustainable, while they simultaneously played a tough schedule.
Trea Turner, Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto are playing again, with Ryan Zimmerman and Matt Adams soon to follow.
Hidden in the Nats’ 19-27 heartburn is the team’s central reality: It has invested $525 million in a long-term commitment to building a Big Three that will not take a back seat to anybody in October — if they get there. Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg are rated the two best pitchers in the majors this year by FanGraphs’ wins above replacement, with Patrick Corbin No. 8 in the NL. Strasburg has evolved to his next stage.
Those Nats rank first, second and fourth in the NL in strikeouts — on pace for 313, 295 and 248 whiffs this year, well ahead of any previous trio.
The Nats will play 43 more games before the all-star break — 26 against teams with a .500-or-worse record, including 10 with Miami, the worst team in Major League Baseball. If you can’t beat them, you deserve what you get.
Of the 17 games against winners, four are with the Philadelphia Phillies, who leads Washington by eight games and whom the Nats should want to play head-to-head to catch up now that they are getting healthy.
Many major league teams play their seasons in chunks during which, within the same season, they seem to be two or three entirely different clubs. For the Nats, the first 46 games have been an embarrassing, self-inflicted humiliation.
“If it’s frustrating just to watch us play, think what we feel like,” Adam Eaton said. “Something’s got to be wrong with you to [put up with] playing this game.”
Despite the extenuation of injuries, the Nats have fielded miserably, run the bases in sleep masks and made fundamentals cry “uncle.” Most concerning for decision-makers, almost nobody on the team is getting better, either from last year to this year or within this season. That reflects on coaching and managing.
To explain the Nats’ comic fielding gaffes, their major league-worst percentage of turning batted balls in play into outs (fielding efficiency) and their genius at avoiding turning double plays, Eaton makes one fair point. “How often do you see a team forced [by injury] to play seven people out of position?” he said.
Not seven in one game, perhaps, but except for pitcher and catcher, the Nats’ defense has been musical chairs for Martinez. For a while, the manager played Eaton in left field and Victor Robles in right, rather than their normal spots in right and center, so that Michael A. Taylor, who would be excellent at any outfield spot, could be his slick self in center. The result: Balls that should have been caught easily were missed entirely in both corner spots by Eaton and Robles.
Super-sub Howie Kendrick (.903 on-base-plus-slugging percentage entering Sunday), a second baseman by trade, a left fielder by necessity, has started 22 games at first or third base, locations he usually visits only when he runs the bases. Luckily, there is no fourth base or he might see his name written into that spot. Add rookie Carter Kieboom to the mix, as well as Soto, who gets trapped in revolving doors in left, and life can get ugly.
Rendon, Turner and second baseman Brian Dozier can bring sanity to the infield, while the daily outfield alignment no longer needs to be a mystery novel.
Rendon has regained his stroke at the plate, and Soto may be close behind. Dozier, a warm-weather hitter, just went 5 for 8, and following a 2-for-25 start, he has hit much like he did from 2013 to 2017 with nice power and walks but plenty of whiffs.
As a bridge to Doolittle, will the Nats’ bullpen begin to put up stats that resemble the backs of their modest-but-decent baseball cards? Will a shaky back of the rotation of Jeremy Hellickson and Erick Fedde be adequate?
Will the Nats play better, maybe much better, now that they finally have a semblance of the roster that most experts thought would win about 90 games? Is the law of averages — a.k.a. “We Can’t Be This Bad” — still in force?
Or by the Fourth of July, will the Nats need 25 round-trip tickets to Fresno?
Why be miserable? Bet on better.