The Washington Nationals’ other 2019 beat-a-dead-horse issue is — wait for it — the bullpen, and Wander Suero and Fernando Rodney allowed one base runner between them in the seventh and eighth. For one night, and one night only, you could stop peeking out between your fingers.
Take those two elements, mix in an impossibly disheartening start to the season and an invigorating — and unexpected — rebirth, and the potential is there for that most unusual of Washington occurrences: an honest-to-goodness pennant race.
Monday night was a step, that’s all, and it assures nothing. But the 6-3 victory over the National League East-leading Atlanta Braves means Tuesday dawns with more hope than Monday. It means the Nats trail the Braves by 4½ games rather than 6½ , a difference that is actually scant but somehow seems like a gulf. It puts a spotlight on Erick Fedde filling in for Max Scherzer as Tuesday’s starter. It makes you start doing the math on what a sweep would mean. (Psssst . . . just a 2½ -game deficit.) It brings possibility.
“These games,” closer Sean Doolittle said, “they feel like they mean more.”
For all the winning baseball around here over the past eight seasons — four division titles and more regular season victories than any team but the Los Angeles Dodgers — this is something that must still be put on the résumé: a wake-up-every-day-and-check-the-box-scores pennant race. The summer of 2005 brought some of that. But there are kids who root for this team who weren’t alive to understand that one, and any scout worth his radar gun knew that bunch from the Island of Misfit Toys couldn’t make it to October.
Since then? It’s amazing how much we know about the Nationals by this point in almost every other season past. When they’re front-runners, they win. When they fall behind, they don’t. The particulars vary from year to year, but the parameters are the same: The teams that look like they’ll win, do, and the teams that don’t, don’t.
Check out what we have learned after 106 games, which is how many the Nats (57-49) have played now. The first division winner, back in 2012, was 20 games over .500 and up two games in the division; the advantage was never smaller than that the rest of the way. The 2014 NL East champs led by just 1½ games after 106 games — but then rolled, winning the division by 17 games. Dusty Baker’s 2016 and 2017 Nats were juggernauts — 18 and 20 games over .500 at this point, respectively, up by five and 12 games, respectively. Those leads never got smaller the rest of the way, either.
Conversely, Davey Johnson’s “World Series or bust” Nats of 2013 were two games under .500 and 8½ games back after 106 games — and never got closer until mid-September, by which point it was too late. Matt Williams’s second team watched its division lead evaporate with a sweep to the Mets that ended with Game 103, trailed by two games after 106 games and entered an early-September home series against the Mets four back. That’s about as close as the District has had to a pennant race since baseball returned here — and those 2015 Nats were swept by the Mets, so September wasn’t as intense as it might have been.
Last year, the 106th game fell exactly at the July 31 trade deadline. At 53-53, the Nats seemed limp and lifeless. Yet club officials — in particular, owner Mark Lerner — bet on the team, as constituted, to magically get better. Lerner vetoed a trade that would have sent Bryce Harper to Houston. That night, the Nats pelted the Mets, 25-4 — but reliever Shawn Kelley spiked his glove in frustration over some ball-strike calls. Kelley was jettisoned the next day, and new manager Dave Martinez’s rolling-and-bobbing ship never steadied itself.
That all makes what’s happening this week another level of interesting. Each result matters.
“You want to face these guys,” said lefty Patrick Corbin, whose six effective innings Monday factored heavily. “We’re chasing them. They’ve had a great season so far. But we feel like we’re just as good as them.”
That’s why Rendon’s obliteration of a 2-0 pitch from overmatched reliever Chad Sobotka in the sixth brought real juice to a crowd of 24,292. There’s a struggle over how much emphasis to put on that moment in this game. For player and fan alike, when a season is 162 games long, what’s the balance in putting emphasis on one over the others? As Rendon said: “What if they lose a game against the Marlins? And we win a game against the Mets? We still gain the same amount of ground.”
Factually correct. But it doesn’t allow for the enjoyment of everything playing out right in front of you.
“It feels like there’s a little more electricity in the stadium,” Doolittle said. “It feels like the fans have a little bit more energy. We feel like we play with maybe a little bit more urgency.
“I know, it’s just 1/162nd of the season. When you put it that way, now we’re getting into some weird, meta stuff where it’s like: ‘Wow, it’s really insignificant. It doesn’t really matter that much. So why do we put so much pressure on ourselves?’ ”
The pressure is building, and it could be a blast.
“Having something to play for in September is so much fun,” Doolittle said. “Coming to the ballpark every day expecting to win and expecting to win a meaningful game, where there’s energy in the stadium and you’re not just playing the season out. Man, it’s so much fun.”
Note to the ownership of the Lerner family, Part 287: Your team leads the wild-card race and could threaten the Braves in the division. Can you afford not to allow General Manager Mike Rizzo and his front office to go out and get one or more pieces to help before Wednesday’s trade deadline? A bullpen arm? Two? Wouldn’t you sleep better knowing you had improved the team’s chances to win?
Pennant races aren’t about getting restful nights of sleep anyway. Monday night, the Nats won with the team they have. That pulled them closer to the Braves in the standings. And it pulled us all closer to August and September baseball that upsets the stomach and makes the palms sweat.
“It’s a little bit too early to really be scoreboard-watching and doing a lot of that math,” Doolittle said.
Fine. A little too early. But not much. Bring it on.