By now, the 2019 Washington Nationals have gone through so many injuries and aggravations, ignored so many naysayers and endured so many blown saves that they seem as resilient as an insolent rubber ball. The harder they get slammed down, the higher they bounce back up.
Who knows how long it will last, but Sunday’s 11-4 win over the back-to-back National League champion Los Angeles Dodgers was another illustration of the Nats’ tendency to contradict expectations, reverse recent trends and push their faces back into any group photo of genuine pennant contenders.
Over the weekend, the Nats found a way to lose the three-game series yet still make a larger point: If they can somehow get to October and meet the Dodgers in a series of five or seven games, they honestly like their chances — something few teams can say with a straight face.
“We feel like we match up with them really well, especially their big three and our big three [starting pitchers],” said Brian Dozier, who was a Dodger in the World Series last year but on Sunday hit a two-run, fifth-inning homer off L.A.’s Walker Buehler that ignited the Nats’ 11-run outburst.
Stephen Strasburg, who is perhaps having his best all-around season, retired the first 13 Dodgers, allowed only one run and two hits in seven innings and, in a dominant nine-strikeout performance, posted his major league-leading 14th win. Strasburg even drove in a run with a bases-loaded single and has gone 5 for 8 with six RBI in his past three starts.
Perhaps the key to Strasburg’s consistency and lack of injury (so far, knock on wood) is his willingness, finally, to be less of a workaholic perfectionist.
“I’m listening to my body and not beating a dead horse,” said Strasburg, who is on pace for 21 wins and more than 250 strikeouts. “When something doesn’t go right, you want to do more or try to change things. It takes a lot of discipline not to do that. Long season . . . roll with the punches.”
Mostly, this season, he is the one dealing punchouts — 168 of them so far.
“Sometimes I think his stuff should be illegal it’s so good,” center fielder Victor Robles said through an interpreter.
This win was typical of a Nats season that never seems to cruise along normally and insists on roller-coaster hyperbole. On Sunday in the first inning, Adam Eaton and Manager Dave Martinez were ejected for arguing balls and strikes. By the fifth, Matt Adams exited after earlier being hit on the foot by a pitch. Against Buehler, what could be worse than a busted lineup?
Robles, in for Eaton, had a single, a double and a triple. Howie Kendrick, in for Adams, had a single and a double. They payin’ these guys overtime?
The Nats and Dodgers have met seven times this year; they split a four-game series in L.A. in May when the Nats were at their most injured. Even with the Dodgers winning the season series 4-3, the rotations did not line up to provide the kind of matchups an October meeting might.
In this series, the Dodgers sent out their best: Hyun-Jin Ryu, (11-2, 1.74 ERA), Clayton Kershaw (9-2, 2.85) and Buehler (9-2, 3.38), who rank fourth, 10th and seventh among NL pitchers in wins above replacement, according to FanGraphs.
“Against Ryu, we put up [eight] hits. . . . If we get a few to fall, you’re looking at 12 to 13 hits. We swung the bats really well, but we couldn’t manufacture runs,” Dozier said of Friday’s 4-2 loss, which was tied at 1 after seven innings. As is so often the case, the Nats called up another reliever (Kyle Barraclough) from the minors, and he gave up a three-run, game-losing homer to the first hitter he faced.
The Nats never broke through against Ryu, but on Sunday they battered Buehler, who seldom gets worked over by anybody. The Nats reached him for seven runs (four earned) on eight hits and three walks.
On Saturday, the Nats scored two runs in the first off Kershaw but got squashed, 9-3, when Joe Ross got shelled.
Since when does scoring 10 runs in 18 innings against three standout starters constitute a moral victory? When it’s the Dodgers — because that’s how great they are. The Nats can console themselves, a bit, that they are 3-1 in games against L.A. started by Max Scherzer, Strasburg and Patrick Corbin.
Whether the Nats ever get to find out what kind of October pitchers’ duel they’d have with the Dodgers depends greatly on what they do against the next team to visit Nationals Park: the Atlanta Braves, who lead the Nats in the NL East by 5½ games after dethroning them for the division title last year.
“They’ve had some injuries of late. You don’t wish that [on anybody], but take advantage,” Eaton said of the Braves, who just lost right fielder Nick Markakis to a broken wrist and shortstop Dansby Swanson to a foot contusion. “We have to win this series — take two or three. It’s not ‘must’ — I hate that word. But it’s a big series.”
Once again, the Nats will have to do it the hard way. They have Corbin and Aníbal Sánchez lined up to start and finish the series, but it’s unlikely Scherzer will make his Tuesday start, so they will need a spot starter. The Braves, just like the Dodgers, are lined up perfectly with Dallas Keuchel, Julio Teheran and hot rookie Mike Soroka.
The Nats, as usual this year, have plenty of worries. Did Scherzer try too hard to come back too soon from a back injury after already pushing himself not to miss starts after he broke his nose (while practicing bunting) and took leave when his wife gave birth to their second daughter? At 35, is Scherzer’s body telling him he will eventually have to remove the word “Mad” from his nickname?
Also, how long will Adams be out, especially because Ryan Zimmerman is already on the IL? Until Scherzer is himself again, who are the Nats’ fourth and fifth starters? And when does that endlessly awaited trade for a reliever get made?
If any of that were easy, they wouldn’t be the 2019 Nats. For more than two months, they have been making the most of their own breaks. But they will need some good fortune, too. After his ejection, Martinez said, “There wasn’t a TV in that clubhouse that I didn’t watch. . . . They were all lucky today.”
That’s almost a necessity against the Dodgers. The Braves, too.