The first half of the Washington Nationals’ season officially ended at 4:13 p.m. Sunday, with the final out in Juan Soto’s glove, another win secured and two competing narratives that can appear together as fact.
The Nationals, built with World Series hopes and a lofty payroll, were all but finished six weeks ago. Now they could just be getting started.
They have the best record in baseball since May 24, a date that has come up a lot recently and will be attached to this team as long as its charge continues. Washington’s win in its first-half finale, a 5-2 victory over the Kansas City Royals at Nationals Park, looked like many of the victories that revived its season: The Nationals got seven scoreless innings from Patrick Corbin. Their bullpen, once historically bad and now shaky at best, blew a lead in the eighth. Then it was bailed out in the bottom half with RBI doubles from Anthony Rendon and Howie Kendrick.
And so here the Nationals are, heading into the all-star break atop the National League wild-card standings, just six games behind the Atlanta Braves in the NL East. They are 47-42, five wins above .500 for the first time since June 25, 2018, and this all seemed impossible when they were stumbling through the spring. But they since bent themselves into shape, one pitch at a time, one win stacked upon another, until they wound up with a fighting chance.
“You’re going to go through stretches where you lose,” Kendrick said. “Ours just happened to be early in the year. I feel like it was just a matter of time before we got it rolling.”
It would be understandable if the Nationals wanted to keep playing, skip the four-day break altogether and force another club to cool them off. Starters Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Aníbal Sánchez and Corbin are in an unshakable groove. Their offense has homered in 21 straight games, extending a franchise record, and has hit 36 in that stretch. They are clicking all over, even if their bullpen still slips too often, and have seen returns on most of their offseason investments.
But time off also will benefit a team that leans so heavily on its core. Scherzer, Strasburg and Corbin almost always exceed 100 pitches, and Corbin got up to 104 on Sunday. Scherzer has felt back tightness in his past two starts and, by choosing not to pitch in his seventh All-Star Game on Tuesday in Cleveland, will have eight days before his next outing. Sean Doolittle has made 39 appearances — his career high is 70 — and has mentioned arm fatigue.
Rendon, Soto and Trea Turner, all sidelined earlier this year, have not rested since they came off the injured list. That’s 55 straight starts for Rendon since he returned from a left elbow contusion. He will skip the All-Star Game altogether to deal with left hamstring and quadriceps pain that has nagged him since early June. It’s 46 straight starts for Turner since he came back from a broken right index finger. And it’s 51 straight starts for Soto since he returned from back spasms. They could all use the rest.
“You sort of wish you could keep playing because we’re on a roll right now,” second baseman Brian Dozier said. “But at the same time, we got a lot of guys beat up, playing through some injuries, and that comes with the territory.”
First they had to take care of the lowly Royals (30-61), who couldn’t touch Corbin and his disappearing slider. The left-hander struck out 11 and walked none, and he has allowed one run or fewer in a career-best four straight starts. But because the Nationals had trouble with Royals starter Jakob Junis despite his 5.53 ERA entering the game, the bullpen was set up to wilt again.
Fernando Rodney entered in the eighth, allowed a leadoff single, let the Royals make it 2-1 and was hooked for Doolittle to try a four-out save. Then Doolittle gave up a game-tying double to Alex Gordon on his first pitch.
But the offense stirred to life in the bottom half, using those doubles from Rendon and Kendrick for separation, nudging in front for good when Adam Eaton dived home ahead of a throw. Scherzer bounced onto the field to meet Eaton by the on-deck circle. He thought it was a walk-off hit. Yet the Nationals still needed three outs, the dugout cracked up as Scherzer jogged back into it, and the moment was played on loop on the clubhouse TVs after the game.
“I might be a little biased because they kind of got me off the hook there, but I think that was our best win of the year,” Doolittle said, noting that it was a comeback, that it was the last day before the all-star break and that it was the rubber match of a tight series. Then he looked up to see Scherzer’s premature celebration and couldn’t hold his laughter in: “I’m watching Max high-five Eaton off the field.”
For now, for at least the next few weeks, the Nationals’ sudden rise should be viewed with apprehension. To finish July, they still have to face the Philadelphia Phillies, the Braves (for two series) and the Los Angeles Dodgers, all tough contenders. They still have a flawed bullpen. They still have a lot of ground to make up in the NL East.
They still have 73 games to play, even if this year has already felt like a lifetime and anything could happen. But summer will be exciting when it could have been very bleak. There’s no way to argue with that.
“When you look back as a player, you never say, ‘Man, I hit .300 before the all-star break,’ ” Manager Dave Martinez said Sunday morning. “No, you look at the big picture, which is the end of the year.”
And because of how it played in late May, all of June and the first week of July, Martinez’s team will be assessed the same way.