Bryce Harper had just drawn his team-record-setting 125th walk when the Washington Nationals’ season came to an end again, this time when the St. Louis Cardinals beat the San Francisco Giants to officially eliminate the Nationals from playoff contention.
The season has ended many times before this, depending on one’s definition of the term — when they sold off Daniel Murphy and Matt Adams, when they sold off again at the end of August, when they were eliminated from the National League East race Friday, and so on. They played the rest of their mathematically meaningless game against the New York Mets in front of a sellout crowd on one of the first autumnal afternoons in an often-stifling season, and won it, 6-0. Austin Voth and four relievers, two rookies, combined to throw a one-hitter.
More “ends” will follow. But as of Saturday, the two-time reigning division champions will not make the playoffs for the second time in four seasons, and that news came as no surprise.
“I think all of us in here will sit here and tell you we came here every day and did everything we could to try and win,” Ryan Zimmerman said. “Because of that, I can go home and be at peace with it.”
Nothing changed when the out-of-town scoreboard declared their fate official. Elimination became a formality for this team long ago, when it traded away Adams and Murphy, then unloaded Gio Gonzalez and Ryan Madson, too. And even before those deals, the Nationals spent most of the summer waiting for life, not creating it.
This team has been exactly .500 at 29 different times this season, never more than 11 games over or more than five games under. It never made its run. It never totally collapsed. When it needed to win consistently, it couldn’t. When it looked likely to fall apart entirely, it didn’t.
If there is one defense against heartbreak, it is never coming close enough to something to be vulnerable in the first place. Having never been particularly close to the playoffs, the Nationals’ pain in missing them is more a prolonged ache than a sharp stab. They would probably prefer the latter.
“We can’t worry about that now. It’s something to where, as a team and as a man, we came in every day ready to play,” Matt Wieters said. “We just didn’t play well enough this year. . . . That’s why this game is played on the field and not in the papers, and that’s what’s great about it.”
In support of Wieters’s point, nothing has changed in the Nationals’ clubhouse since this day began to feel inevitable weeks ago. They did not conduct themselves like a team stewing on its failures, and they played with enough inspiration to give the appearance of grit.
Hitters worked through their daily routines in the cage. Relievers struggled to complete their crosswords. Starters took batting practice, a process rife with ribbing, though less than there was before Gonzalez left. Wieters and others pumped triumphant fists at big moments. Absent expectations or implications, the game became just a game again, a sense that solidified itself when the Cardinals won Saturday.
The game could have been any March afternoon in West Palm Beach, with Voth and Corey Oswalt matching up because the established starters needed a break. It could have been any afternoon in Port St. Lucie, with Victor Robles and Juan Soto in the Nationals’ lineup and Amed Rosario and Jacob Reinheimer starting for the Mets.
Voth started Saturday because Tanner Roark, the originally scheduled starter, spent most of this past week at home helping his wife through the birth of the couple’s third child. Even after seasons as grueling as this one, life outside baseball goes on, and time promises new hopes.
For example, the 26-year-old Voth had one major league start to his name, one just before the all-star break against these same Mets. He allowed seven runs in 4⅓ innings, then waited all summer for another chance.
He seized that chance Saturday and found redemption in pitch execution and constant command. He threw five scoreless innings and allowed one infield hit, by far the best outing of his career. Voth was at 73 pitches when Manager Dave Martinez pinch-hit for him in the fifth, preventing him from facing the Mets a third time, ensuring what will likely be his last start of the season ended in position to earn his first big league win.
“I felt awful after that first start. It didn’t go the way I wanted it to,” Voth said. “But I was motivated to do better the second time.”
Trea Turner’s third-inning homer had given him the lead, and Voth had not given it back. That lead grew after Voth departed because Wieters hit his seventh home run of the season against Jerry Blevins to bring home three runs in the sixth. Harper drove in his 98th run with a double in the seventh. All of that was plenty to give the Nationals their 78th victory. The question, of course, is how did this roster not win more?
“A lot of different things,” Martinez said when asked for his answer before the game. “It’s the little things that matter. That’s something we’ll address this winter. That’s something we’re going to address in spring training. Little things turn out to be big things.”
Neither he nor his players can fix those things now. They will play seven more games for nothing more than the pride that comes with a winning record, and for whatever good feelings they can still muster. Even in low moments, as Voth proved, this game still provides them now and then.
But for the next several days, the Nationals will play baseball free of pressure, of expectations, and of meaning. The game is just a game again. The trouble now, of course, is that it could have meant so much more.