After their 4-2 loss to the New York Mets moved them one Braves win away from being mathematically eliminated in the National League East, the Washington Nationals didn’t wait around to see if the Braves would beat the Phillies. Most of them didn’t know what happened when they left the field, and the clubhouse televisions stood blank as they hurried to change and head home.
“If they win, they’re going to win the division. It’s part of the game. That’s what happens; one team loses, one team wins,” Bryce Harper said. “. . . That’s part of sports.”
The Braves did win, though most Nationals were long gone by then. Asked about the fact that they might finally be eliminated from the division race they were supposed to lead and win, long before he knew the outcome, Manager Dave Martinez pivoted.
“They’re not going to quit. I know they’re going to finish this out,” Martinez said. “. . . We’re just going to keep going, but I’m going to see some of these other guys.”
By “other guys” Martinez meant the young guys, such as Jimmy Cordero and Austen Williams, who threw scoreless innings in relief. He meant Victor Robles, who misplayed a line drive in the first inning that turned into a run but did have one of the three hits the Nationals mustered in seven innings against Jacob deGrom.
Were the Nationals engaged in the division-winning season most expected them to have, the focus these days would center on the present, on who is making the playoff roster, on who should be used to maximize performance in October. But because they were nearing mathematical elimination, the Nationals were playing in an uncomfortable part of the baseball space-time continuum, their energy somewhere between achieving what’s left to achieve in the present and what can be proved for the future.
The future of NL East competition could look something like the first inning of Friday’s game, in which young Mets shortstop Amed Rosario hit a line drive to center off Joe Ross and forced 21-year-old Robles to make a play. He could not and charged too far in before retreating, the ball beyond his reach. It turned into a double and eventually a run because Jay Bruce blooped a two-out single to left.
At times since his call-up, Robles has looked overeager, prone to taking the home run swing when the single would do. At times, his undeniable and unfiltered confidence has felt out of proportion with his résumé here.
On the other hand, September call-ups are supposed to make mistakes, and one can look at Robles’s brief tenure two ways. One, he is getting the kinks out now, in major league opportunities he wouldn’t have had if this season had gone differently, and will be more prepared to start in center field next year because of it. Two, he could be showing the Nationals that he might not be ready to start every day in center field next year, which could influence their offseason plans dramatically. If, at 21, he needs more time, that is hardly a sign of stunted growth.
That the Nationals struggled against deGrom could hardly be considered a sign of anything. He entered the day with a 1.78 ERA that was more than half a run lower than any other National Leaguer’s mark. His nearest challenger for the NL Cy Young Award, Max Scherzer, is pitching to a 2.57 mark. Scherzer has more strikeouts, a lower batting average against, a better WHIP and more wins. In other words, Scherzer needed his teammates to help his candidacy Friday.
But it took just an inning for the Nationals to get a man on base. Anthony Rendon drew a second-inning walk to reach base for the 29th straight game, a career high. It took just one more batter for the Nationals to get their first hit. Juan Soto turned on a 98 mph fastball for a single. One batter later, they had their first run. Ryan Zimmerman hit a sacrifice fly to center to score Rendon.
Tying the game against deGrom once qualifies as an achievement in itself, but Ross could not keep his teammates from needing to do it again. Though his velocity was once again encouraging — his fastball sat at around 95 — he left the ball up too much early. But he recovered when he kept it down late.
Ross has had plenty of time to show the Nationals who he is and how much they can count on him moving forward. But things change when pitchers undergo Tommy John elbow surgery, and the Nationals must reevaluate him now. Can he be a part of the rotation next year. Is he working out the kinks?
“This guy just came back from Tommy John surgery. Today we got him up to 95 pitches,” Martinez said. “That’s pretty encouraging.”
DeGrom, meanwhile, continued charging through seven innings in which he allowed that one run on three hits while striking out eight. Friday was deGrom’s 28th straight start in which he did not allow three runs or more, a major league record. His ERA went down in the process, meaning the Nationals were not able to help Scherzer’s case — one of the few 2018 cases this team has left to make.
They did add a run on Rendon’s RBI single in the ninth, and Harper came within feet of what would have been a two-run homer. But it wasn’t enough. By the time they hit the showers, the Braves had rallied from a late lead, and none of them were checking their phones or whispering about the scores. They were supposed to have this division wrapped up by now. Instead, the race left them behind, using September to prepare for April — looking ahead to dull the sting of looking back.