On Saturday, in the first game of a doubleheader, Patrick Corbin allowed a base on balls, then a blast to Milwaukee Brewers cleanup man Avisaíl García in the first inning. Those two runs were more than the Washington Nationals managed in a 4-1 loss. In the nightcap, the Nats’ bullpen inherited a 2-1 lead with nine outs needed but imploded for a 6-2 loss.
On Sunday, Max Scherzer duplicated Corbin’s trick with a walk, then a two-run homer to García. The Nats retaliated with . . . nothing. Just three singles in a 3-0 loss.
So that went well.
It’s a wonderful motto to “Go 1-0 today.” But when a team goes 47-62, spread over two seasons, since it won the 2019 World Series, sometimes you have to “Take ’em 109 at a time.”
Just how dire are the Nats’ straits?
After two months of every season, about half of the teams know they have no chance to win anything — not their division or even a wild card. Each team looks at its dispiriting record, such as the Nats’ 21-28, and knows its weaknesses. Its offseason additions have given an idea of what they can contribute, but the team’s core — its stars — just isn’t good enough to get the job done.
The Nats are in a different category — for now.
Over the next two months — by the trade deadline, when decisions not just about the rest of 2021 but about key pieces of the longer-term future start to be decided — the Nats need to show they are still, at their core, a contender.
Patience is baseball’s first rule. And probably the second, too. But right now, as Scherzer holds the fort almost alone — he’s probably protecting the ranch house, the north forty and the hot dog stand, too — the Nats’ reserve of calm and forbearance is being tested.
On Sunday, after his first-inning glitch, Scherzer retired 16 of the last 17 Brewers he faced. He fanned 10 to take over the National League lead in strikeouts with 95. Yet his 2.34 ERA, which would be the lowest of his Cooperstown-bound career, has been backed by so little run support that he’s 4-4. In his walk year, the 36-year-old is judging whether the team he led to glory is also a club he would consider for his last act.
Three players probably hold the key to the Nats’ season — and definitely much of their future, too.
After going 20-23 following a pandemic-protocol-depleted 1-5 start, the Nats still might be almost anything. The cause for this wild range of outcomes is the negative value of Corbin, Stephen Strasburg and Juan Soto.
That’s right — less than zero. Worth less as a trio than random Class AAA call-ups or bench players.
Entering Sunday, their combined wins above replacement, according to Baseball Reference, was minus-0.2. In 2019, that trio’s WAR was 16.1 — three elite stars.
In baseball’s perverse, peculiar way, that is the best thing the Nats have going for them. Strasburg and Corbin, combined current contracts worth $385 million, and Soto, who might someday make that much just by signing his name, don’t have to be that good for the Nats to find themselves back in the mundane NL East mud-wrestle, where they trail the much-injured New York Mets by six games.
Since he was named MVP of the 2019 World Series, Strasburg has won once. Since he started three times and made five pivotal October relief appearances in 2019, Corbin is 5-11 with a 5.35 ERA. If that past is prologue for them, the Nats’ future is bleak.
But is that reasonable? In his past eight starts, Corbin is 3-2 with a 4.14 ERA. In two starts back from the injured list, Strasburg has looked rusty but has a 2.61 ERA.
At least their heads are in the game. Soto is in the first full-scale baseball-brain-lock funk of his life. Knowing that, entering Sunday, 144 other major leaguers had more homers than his four, he slams equipment when he fails. After failing to run on a pop-up that fell untouched in fair ground, he had to apologize to the team for the embarrassment.
Where’s the joy? If the $340 million contract of Fernando Tatis Jr., also 22, or the comparative stats of Ronald Acuña Jr. are on Soto’s mind, he needs to clear his thoughts. He and his fellow young stars may be compared for 10 or even 20 years. Get used to it. Meanwhile, fix that one-degree launch angle. On Sunday, he had two first-pitch groundouts.
At 32 and 31, Strasburg and Corbin are not yet old and still should be first-rate pitchers, and Soto should be roughly as good as his spectacular career levels. That’s far more conventional baseball wisdom than my opinion.
There is nothing wrong with the Nats that a return to form by Soto, Strasburg and Corbin can’t cure. And there is no medicine to save their playoff chances if they don’t.
There may be positive signs for the batting order, eighth worst in the majors in runs per game and pathetic Sunday against Brewers winner Brandon Woodruff and closer Josh Hader, whose ERAs — 1.27 and 0.87 — look like English Premier League goal averages.
From the start of May to the end of Saturday, Trea Turner, Kyle Schwarber and Josh Bell had on-base-plus-slugging percentages of .831, .887 and .810, and they had 17, 18 and 15 RBI. That is exactly who General Manager Mike Rizzo hoped they would be. They also had all of the Nats’ hits Sunday.
In the “Ain’t baseball great?” department, each of those Nats has more RBI in the past 30 days than Bryce Harper, Anthony Rendon and Francisco Lindor have all season. Ryan Zimmerman gets $1 million and starts twice a week but has 15 RBI, close behind the biggest contracts in the majors — Mike Trout (18) and Mookie Betts (17). That’s cherry-picking stats, but it’s fun.
For me, the real weight of these numbers is that if you add a remotely normal Soto to Turner, Schwarber and the Bell-Zimmerman tandem at first base, the Nats should have a slightly above average offense, not their current mess. Starlin Castro, Josh Harrison and Yan Gomes can fill out an adequate lineup as long as others do the heavy lifting.
Everyone knows the Nats are a team with five major stars — three of them making huge money and two who will someday. Around them are 21 other players with varying roles who, as a group, are producing as expected. The awakenings of Schwarber and Bell matter because they came cheap after ugly but brief 2020 seasons.
Right now, Scherzer and Turner are playing like their all-star-level selves. Strasburg, Corbin and Soto have contributed zilch, which not one major league guru would have guessed. To the degree they improve, so will the Nats’ record, as well as the excitement within the team and around it.
What will that degree of improvement be? And how deep might the Nats’ hole be by the time it arrives?
Therein lies the hope, the worry and the mystery.
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