Since 1901, when the Senators came to Washington for 71 seasons, and in the 15 years since the Nationals came to town, D.C. has never had that experience. Not once. And nothing close. When the Senators won their three American League pennants and the Nats won their four National League East titles, they never confronted a double-digit deficit. In fact, being six games behind early in the 1924 and 1933 seasons, then in first place by June, was as tough as it got.
Maybe these Nationals, who trailed the Phillies by 10 games on May 25, are not the team that will pull off the stunt for the first time in D.C., even though their division deficit is down to 6½ games. But someday, almost certainly, Washington will have that long fun ride. Don’t miss it for the safety of cynicism.
When it comes, there will be days such as Wednesday afternoon at Nationals Park when pieces of the puzzle fall dramatically into place
, such as Trea Turner’s hitting and Aníbal Sánchez’s pitching, while season-long problems reappear, such as the Nats’ bullpen horrors in the eighth inning, that still make fans curse their own loyalty.
When Turner’s homer landed in the Chicago bullpen in the ninth inning, securing a 6-4 victory, his Nationals mates pounded his back as if his bomb was a perfect symbol of their delight and recent relief. A 9-2 hot streak has raised spirits suddenly and put the Nationals (28-33) back in the National League East picture.
“Three weeks ago, we probably lose that game, and [today] we end up winning,” Manager Dave Martinez said.
Turner’s spring, with 39 games missed because of a broken finger, has reflected the Nats’ misfortunes. And his big hit against the White Sox is an example of exactly what the Nats need if they are to find their stride.
So was the crisp 5⅓ innings of one-run ball thrown by Sánchez. His brutal 0-6 start, followed by a trip to the injured list with a bad hamstring, made the 35-year-old look like a lousy offseason signing. Now, in two starts since his return, his ERA is 0.79, and he has allowed only five hits against 14 strikeouts.
And he looks like the right-hander who had a 2.83 ERA last year in Atlanta. One key goal of command pitchers is to avoid the central square of the strike zone — that one box among nine on the pitch-track graphs that every big leaguer can hit. Of Sánchez’s 80 pitches, only nine touched any part of that dangerous center box, and only two did more than barely tick it. “I am hitting all four corners of the strike zone with all my [five] pitches in any count,” a satisfied Sánchez said.
Sánchez can help the back of the rotation every five games. But Turner can boost the top of the lineup every day.
Turner hit two homers against the Mets in the season’s third game, including a walk-off blast. Coming off a 2018 season in which he played 162 games, scored 103 runs and led the NL in steals (43), he looked poised to be an all-star. But the next night, as he squared to bunt, a high fastball from Phillies starter Zach Eflin caught Turner’s index finger and left him with a non-displaced fracture, starting the Nats’ spiral.
Turner had hit only .224 in 18 games since his return, with no home runs, when he came to bat in the ninth inning. He has been forced to swing with only nine fingers; his injured finger is still too tender to hold the bat and take the jolt of foul balls on the handle. On Wednesday, he was 0 for 4 with three strikeouts — until his final swing.
“Since I’ve come back, I don’t think it’s having an extra finger on the bat or this or that. It’s a matter of taking a good swing on a good pitch,” Turner insisted. Believe that if you want. But it’s also the only thing you can say when you’re toughing it out for the team and have no idea when that finger will be healed.
Early in that final at-bat, with a runner on first and no outs, he squared to bunt for the first time since his injury. Luckily for the Nats, he didn’t get it down.
It’s months too early for scoreboard watching or standings study. But it’s appropriate to note that the Phillies and Braves have won-lost percentages on a modest 89- to 90-win pace. Also, their run differentials look like teams that are more likely to end up at 85 to 87 wins. Also Tuesday, the Phillies learned that center fielder, leadoff man and clubhouse leader Andrew McCutchen would be lost for the season
to knee surgery.
With 99 Nats games left, this may be a beautiful divisional mess in the making. What seemed like a wasted year when the Nats were an abysmal 19-31 — and playing clownishly — now shows prospects.
No more than that, mind you — just prospects for fun but no assurances. Just as some hotels have a 12th and 14th floor but no unlucky 13th, the Nats may want to consider changing their scoreboard so that the innings go from 1-2-3-4-5-6-7 straight to 9-10 and skip the eighth inning. You still play nine innings, but perhaps the Nats’ bullpen — a.k.a. Apocalypse Now — will never realize when the eighth inning arrives. The Nats have allowed 60 runs in 61 eighth innings.
This time, the eighth-inning disaster — and a blown 4-1 lead — came on homers on consecutive pitches to Jose Abreu and Welington Castillo off Kyle Barraclough and Wander Suero. The crowd booed softly, a sort of ritual mourning.
Barraclough hasn’t pitched in a week because he isn’t trusted much, though he gets warmed up plenty, only to sit back down. In this game he was asked for six outs so that overused Suero could be rested for a day, thus making Suero available to close, if needed, in San Diego on Thursday when Sean Doolittle, who has worked a lot, may need a day off. Got that?
If you do, you’re ahead of some of us. Barraclough never got that sixth out. Abreu got him first — with a two-run blast. Suero was summoned, making him unavailable for Thursday, and his first pitch landed in the right field bleachers.
What, oh, what, could relieve this relief misery?
Trevor Rosenthal, once a star closer, is still a man in possession of a 100-mph fastball and a sharp slider. But after a hideously wild three innings (and 12 earned runs) as a Nat, will he take back possession of his control while there’s still time to be an enormous force for world peace or at least a big help in getting the Nats’ bullpen an ERA lower than its devilish 6.66?
On Tuesday, Rosenthal threw 11 strikes in 15 pitches at Class AA. On Wednesday, he wants to pitch in back-to-back games — one of the last steps before a possible return by Sunday.
“We’re not going to win with three guys in the bullpen,” said Martinez, presumably meaning Doolittle, rookie Tanner Rainey (2.25 ERA, 14 strikeouts in eight innings) and Suero.
“If we can get [Rosenthal] right, he’ll be a huge addition to our team.”
To that end, Martinez did not suggest prayers, mystic chants or offer to sell his soul on the installment plan. But if you feel the urge, it’s not against the law.