“Just so you know, I really don’t like that number,” Manager Dave Martinez said. “It worked out last year, but I’d rather be 31-19.”
So it’s impossible to look at that record — at 19-31 — without looking back. The numbers don’t mean much on their own. Carter Kieboom entered this game with 19 hits. Trea Turner had 13 doubles, Juan Soto had 11 and Kurt Suzuki had seven, totaling 31. There are enough stats in baseball to make patterns out of nothing. It’s a sport of endless rabbit holes.
But put them next to each other, put them in that order — 19-31 — and it means something in Washington. It always will. That’s what the Nationals saw in the standings May 24, 2019. What happened next, across five months, was them going from very, very bad to very, very good, all in the context of peeling their backs off the wall. Then they won the World Series, carving 19-31 into lore.
In 2019, a normal year, the first 50 games could still be an aberration, a springboard, the start of a run that doesn’t stop. In 2020, though, those first 50 games define you. That’s the nature of this beast.
“We know it’s going to be a short season,” catcher Yan Gomes said in mid-July, long before the Nationals began a slow slide into winter. “And we can’t really do the whole 19-31 and make it a story again.”
It’s a different story now, requiring more context than most Septembers. The Nationals are close to being mathematically eliminated from an expanded playoff field. With a doubleheader Sunday, they have two more chances to play spoiler against the second-place Marlins. They’re limping to the finish without Stephen Strasburg, Adam Eaton, Starlin Castro and Sean Doolittle, and they also have Howie Kendrick and Tanner Rainey, among others, on the injured list.
There are reasons to throw out this summer, wipe the slate, treat next year as the true chance to repeat under the usual circumstances. But the Nationals have also underachieved because, well, they’ve underachieved. The offense has been unbalanced. The bullpen, once a relative strength, was overworked and, as of late, held back by closer Daniel Hudson. And the rotation has not been the expected backbone.
At the bottom, Austin Voth recently completed five innings for the first time in five weeks. His ERA is 7.17 in 37⅔ innings. Aníbal Sánchez’s is higher at 7.38 in 42⅔ . But the top has struggled, too, with Max Scherzer and Corbin lapsing in situations that typically go their way.
“It’s definitely frustrating how we’ve played so far this season,” Corbin said. “I know guys have been working their butts off to try to go out there and win games.”
When Corbin is going well, a young lineup like the Marlins’ has a really tough task. Corbin sets up his slider with pinpoint sinkers. He tallies quick outs because, with his slider looming, batters don’t want to fall behind. And if they do, he gets bad swings on a pitch that skips into the dirt, often untouched, before reaching Gomes’s mitt.
But that’s not the version that faced the Marlins. This Corbin didn’t collect a one-two-three inning. He allowed a run in five of his six frames. He yielded a leadoff homer, one of Miguel Rojas’s three hits off him, and a towering, two-run shot to Garrett Cooper in the third. Then Cooper smacked another sinker to right-center for an RBI double in the sixth. Corbin exited at the end of that inning after 93 pitches, his line stained by seven earned runs and those 14 hits, a career-worst total.
By then, the Nationals’ little offense was erased. It came on Andrew Stevenson’s two-run single in the fourth, which came after Luis García singled at the end of an eight-pitch at-bat against Marlins starter Pablo López and Kieboom worked an eight-pitch walk. Stevenson added a leaping catch along the right field wall when the game was still close. García punched two opposite-field singles. That was it for positives.
Corbin kept permitting too much contact. The defense was spotty, with Corbin bobbling a tapper that scored the Marlins’ fourth run and Turner booting a grounder in the fifth. Kieboom kicked a sharp grounder to start the next inning. The Nationals botched a double steal when Kieboom was thrown out by a few steps. Martinez has lamented his team lending extra outs, and the Nationals were at it again.
“My plan, next year in spring training, is to attack all those things again and be ready,” Martinez said. “Be ready for Opening Day.”
Martinez has spent the past few weeks jotting down notes for 2021. It’s easier to look ahead when the present’s so gloomy. Once this 19-31 arrived, with the quietest of thuds, there were eight days remaining in a season that never turned. Those numbers couldn’t trigger another comeback for the ages. They were just the beginning of an end.
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