On Friday night, the Washington Nationals — who, after the Houston Astros, had been the hardest team in Major League Baseball to beat by a lopsided score this season — were blown out in Nationals Park, 12-2, by the rising young Phillies. It was an ugly drubbing.
Philadelphia thus nosed past the Nats by a half-game in the National League East, putting Washington in third place — the lowest the Nats have been in the division since 2013.
Before the game, Manager Dave Martinez hired a DJ to play “real, live, crispy music. It’s going to get bumping pretty good, too, by the way. . . . Don’t be surprised if you see lights.”
Ballplayers are superstitious. After the bumping turned into a thumping, Martinez said: “The music was good. But he won’t be here anymore.”
From Friday’s loss through July 4, the Nats are playing seven games with the Phillies, as well as three against the Red Sox (second in the majors at 51-27). These are testing, dangerous days when brief inattention or any self-pity can lead to a losing streak. After fighting through so many injuries already this year to tread water at 40-35, just three games behind Atlanta, the Nats face another mini-crisis.
With Stephen Strasburg, Matt Adams, Ryan Zimmerman, Jeremy Hellickson and Matt Wieters on the disabled list, Tanner Roark in a mechanics funk (210 pitches to get 25 outs in back-to-back losses), plus Bryce Harper (.212) and Daniel Murphy (.135) in slumps, the Nats might want to reflect on the team whose gear many of them wear and whose Stanley Cup title run was regularly on their clubhouse TV.
The Washington Capitals’ Cup contains many lessons, but perhaps the clearest is that many champions in every sport go through a preposterous number of injuries, slumps, coaching controversies and season-near-death experiences. At many points, they may seem like the 10th-or-worse team in their sport, not the next champ.
In hindsight, those teams such as the Caps say — and truly believe — that the hard times brought them closer, built resilience, revealed unknown strengths, showed the resourcefulness of the coach and made the final feat that much sweeter.
But in real time you do not know all that. Day to day, the process often feels like part of an interminable trip to nowhere.
The Nats sure would like to know whether the first 75 games of their season are about bonding through endless aggravation, about discovering teenage phenom Juan Soto a month ago (and two years ahead of time) and trading for elite reliever Kelvin Herrera this week. Or is the whole thing a pain in the neck that ends with too many injuries or unfixable flaws, too big a deficit for too long, as in 2013 and 2015?
They — and we — don’t get to know. But for a town that has dripped pessimism for years, the Caps’ fortitude ought to allow for some optimism.
My view is that every current Nats problem will be — or at least in theory can be — solved just by time.
Adam Eaton is back and close to normal. Murphy is back and not close. But it’s hard to believe he has forgotten how to hit. Adams’s broken finger will be fine soon. Zimmerman’s oblique has cost him six weeks, probably because he had a setback in mid-recovery. Hellickson’s hamstring is okay, again, and after a rehab start, he will take his next turn.
In perhaps the best sign, Strasburg has played catch twice. Pitchers face more danger than moths in a forest fire. And “shoulder” is the scariest flame. You don’t throw a ball, at all, until discomfort is entirely gone. So let out half of your breath. One DL vacation per summer for Strasburg is excellent accidental medicine, in my book, provided that’s all it is. Last year, he was fresh and at his best in October.
Before the trade deadline, the Nats will consider possible deals for a catcher, though Wieters will return. They will kick the tires on starting pitchers, too, though if Gio Gonzalez (6-4, 3.08 ERA) could command his nerves in October the way he controls himself in the regular season as a crafty past-30 lefty, there would be no need.
The Caps did not make noise at their trade deadline. They liked their roster, knew it wasn’t perfect but went with it. T.J. Oshie remembered how to score, and Braden Holtby broke out of a slump in the playoffs. Sometimes the right answer isn’t to pick flaws in Gonzalez’s past playoff starts or Wieters’s hitting as he ages. Both have all-star pasts and still possess a present. Don’t undersell them.
Look for an opportune move, such as the Herrera deal. But except for Miami catcher J.T. Realmuto, there’s nobody available who’s worth six-plus seasons of a top prospect such as Victor Robles or shortstop Carter Kieboom. The Nats’ window isn’t closing as long as Max Scherzer and Strasburg are twin aces through 2021.
Why? Partly because the Nats’ farm keeps producing and General Manager Mike Rizzo keeps trading. But, also, maybe because of Soto.
In his first 116 plate appearances, he has hit .323 with a 1.018 on-base-plus-slugging percentage. That ranks with the best starts by any teenager ever.
Don’t put Soto in Cooperstown. But do put him in the same Nats category as the past four everyday cornerstone players that they developed. After about the same number of plate appearances, Zimmerman was hitting .317, Anthony Rendon .354 and Trea Turner .280, and Harper had a .901 OPS. Soto looks like he will fall along that excellent arc.
When we look at Soto, what do we see?
“Joey Votto and Ken Griffey Jr., mixed together,” said Nats reliever Ryan Madson, now in his 21st pro season. “Votto for the whole feeling of him at the plate — attack mode, then tough with two strikes. Griffey for the swing — big finish, big extension for power.
“Add some Bobby Abreu [.395 career on-base percentage] for his eye and patience,” Madson added. “The the way he drives his swing with his hips, while his hands and arms are still back, waiting to assist — that’s Ryan Howard. The way he catches the ball late, delayed hit, not jumpy, is like Howard — like he’d prefer to drive it to left-center, but he still might drive it to right-center.”
Then Madson laughed. “I’m sorry. All those guys were good for a long time,” he said. “I’m not comparing him to them. That’s just what I see in him.”
This week, Martinez made Soto the first teenager to bat cleanup in the major leagues since 1970. “Soto reminds me of Bryce a lot when he was younger,” Martinez said. “Their swings stay in the strike zone a really long time. Swing path — almost the same.”
The rest of the NL sees these things, too. When he arrived, Soto said, “I hunt fastballs.” The league recognized it, perhaps aided by the sight of a home run to right-center field in Yankee Stadium that bounced out the concourse on a 98-mph fastball.
“I’m not sure what to say about that. Have we seen one hit there before?” a stunned Yankees announcer said. Of all players with 100 plate appearances, only one NL player has seen a lower percentage of fastballs than Soto (46.5).
Respect. But he’s crushing anyway.
As a season progresses, what is just noise, what is signal? For the Nats, the next few days and weeks, as their injured return and struggle to find their form, there probably will be lots if static. The signal may be Soto.
For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.