The Nationals’ season died Tuesday night, died in the seventh inning specifically, a water-torture frame that had to be preserved on DVR to be believed. Even then, someone would have to muster the courage to pick up the remote control, the stomach to press play.
But who? Who among you would do so? This sort of forensics requires eye goggles and a gas mask to protect important body parts. And the question, after such a dissection revealed the details of the Nationals’ unforgivable 8-7 loss to the New York Mets, would be of the panoramic variety: What will change for 2016? Will the course of this franchise remain the same?
“Had it where we wanted it,” Manager Matt Williams said afterward, when he was booed by fans through the glass at his own postgame news conference. “Didn’t work out.”
Print that up on T-shirts and fly it on flags, because it just might be the slogan for the 2015 Nats from start to finish: Had it where we wanted it. Didn’t work out.
One baseball game out of 162 doesn’t normally chart a new course for a franchise. But after this utter mess, and the season it will come to represent, whose future seems indisputably safe? Bryce Harper and . . .
The specifics of what happened at Nationals Park were these: The Nats, needing a show-us-something victory over the Mets to pull back within four games of the division lead with 24 games to play, staked themselves to a 7-1 lead over New York ace Matt Harvey. With two outs and one on in the top of the seventh inning, the reappearance of a pennant race seemed nigh.
And from there, Blake Treinen, Felipe Rivero and Drew Storen delivered the following performance: walk, run-scoring single, walk, bases-loaded walk, three-run double, walk, walk, game-tying walk, hard flyout.
Suddenly, there was a get-it-over-with, put-us-out-of-our-misery feeling to the entire affair. Not just the game. The season.
“Up 7-1,” Harper said, “you expect to win.”
(Where is his ring anyway?)
It took Kirk Nieuwenhuis’s pinch-hit homer off Nats closer Jonathan Papelbon to provide the difference in the eighth, the run that gave the Mets a six-game lead in the division. But it is the seventh inning, and the bullpen’s utter shriveling in a moment it should have owned, where the disaster was born. That’s the frame into which the entire 2015 season crawled, a frame that opened with so many expectations. They were dead when it ended.
So by the conclusion of this affair, there was little to do but look forward. Take the following players, and pick those you expect to be here in 2016: Storen, Ian Desmond, Jordan Zimmermann, Matt Thornton, Casey Janssen, Denard Span, Doug Fister, Dan Uggla. That’s a third of a regular-season roster — and it doesn’t even get to the question of the manager.
Williams’s every walk to the mound for a simple pitching change has been labored for months, fraught with questions about strategy and usage and acumen. And here he was Tuesday, even before events became unwatchable, hearing the boos when he came to remove Zimmermann with two outs in the sixth inning of what was then a 3-1 game.
“I think that was the right move,” Zimmermann said.
The strategy seemed sound enough: the right-handed Zimmermann had thrown 100 pitches, and left-handed hitting Daniel Murphy had a .339 average and four homers against Zimmermann for his career. In the moment, it even worked, because Thornton retired Murphy, and the Nats scored four in the bottom of the inning to open what seemed like a comfortable lead.
There is no comfort, though, in 2015, not for this bullpen, not for these Nats. We know the relief will undergo some measure of transformation in the offseason, because too often, when the only acceptable outcome was to get outs, they failed to get them.
But what about the leadership? What about Williams?
“We have 25 games left,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said in a brief interview before Tuesday’s game. “Matt Williams is our manager, and he’s going to lead us through this stretch. I’ve always supported him. We’re not going to talk about 2016 while 2015 is ongoing.”
Yet now, 2015 is only ongoing because the calendar says so. But while it’s still ongoing, it’s worth wondering not only about the use of the bullpen — a season-long pondering, really — but about its very construction.
Treinen, counted on to be the setup man when the season began but relegated to the minors at one point, got two outs in the seventh Tuesday night. He couldn’t get the last. Rivero, a rookie, walked his only two batters. And Storen . . . well, the three-run double he allowed to Yoenis Cespedes to get the Mets within one might be the last meaningful hit he allows in a Nationals uniform. He followed it with three straight walks. Trade talks may have been underway mid-inning.
And then there is Rizzo, the second general manager since the franchise moved to Washington, the architect of a rebuild that yielded division titles in 2012 and ’14. Sources with knowledge of Washington’s hierarchy don’t believe Rizzo is in trouble, and executives believe there is a foundation in place for 2016 and beyond. But the Lerner family is opaque in the way it makes decisions, and there is disappointment from everyone on South Capitol Street about how this all turned out.
“Over the last three years, we’ve won as many games and as many divisions as anybody in baseball, and we continue to feel that we are one of the model organizations in the game and an organization that is held to the highest standards,” Rizzo said before the game. “When you don’t reach those standards on a daily basis, on a game-by-game basis, it’s frustrating. But we always have the next day to look forward to and try to revamp our situation and win a ballgame.”
They can try to win a ballgame Wednesday night. It just won’t mean as much as it seemed like it would in the top of the seventh Tuesday night. The lives that set of circumstances could change include Williams, Storen and on down the list. The 2015 Nats had it where they wanted it, and it didn’t work out.