Their exploits Sunday — and those of the teams around them in the National League wild-card chase — capture the Nats’ gripping season, one in which they either grip your heart strings or try to grip-and-rip your throat.
After splitting six games on a road trip — a span in which the bullpen was so bad that at times it felt as if they might lose seven — the Nats are now almost certain to make the playoffs. Always insert “almost” when mentioning this club. They make a 98 percent chance feel like “pick ’em.”
The Chicago Cubs, in a state of utter collapse at rainy Wrigley Field, can’t win. The Milwaukee Brewers, playing without lost-for-the-year superstar Christian Yelich, simply refuse to lose.
As a result, the Nats find themselves in a situation that may define a baseball “mixed blessing.” Despite another blown-save loss in Miami on Sunday, this one by a score of 5-3, the Nats remain four games (and five in the all-important loss column) ahead of the Cubs, the closest team that could knock them out of the playoffs. The New York Mets are 4½ back. It’s remarkable that any team can be in the Nats’ seat — counting down its magic number to the playoffs — after burying itself with a 19-31 start.
Yet because the Brewers have won 15 of 17, making up seven games on the Nats since Sept. 6, Washington has no idea where it would play a highly likely wild-card game Oct. 1. Would it be at Nationals Park or Milwaukee against a dogged Brew Crew that is now in a virtual tie with them for the first wild-card spot?
The Nats have a tiny edge — a one-game lead in the loss column. However, the Brewers have a more meaningful advantage — the home-field tiebreaker for a wild-card matchup — thanks to a 4-2 season-series win. How did they get it? Just point at their 15-14 win in 14 innings in August when the Nats blew an 11-8 lead in the ninth. Does that capture the mood and meaning of this season well enough?
Before anyone bemoans how the Nats blew a 4-0 lead (and a Stephen Strasburg win) in the eighth inning Saturday — before winning 10-4 in the 10th — or how rookie Austin Voth was cost a win when the Nats blew a 3-1 lead Sunday, please stop to bow your head for the Cubs.
No Cubs team, not the worst of ’em, had been swept in four games at Wrigley Field by the hated St. Louis Cardinals since 1921. Well, it just happened again. At times, playoff spots are more about scoreboard watching than winning. Is the scoreboard in Wrigley still standing?
Manager Joe Maddon, who may soon be ex-Cubs manager Joe Maddon, tried eight relievers in a game against the Cardinals — twice. He called on $43 million August signee Craig Kimbrel twice in huge situations. On Thursday, Kimbrel gave up a first-pitch homer to lose the game. On Saturday, he gave up homers on his first two pitches to lose again. The Nats’ MVP for September? Maybe Kimbrel.
In the annals of be-careful-what-you-wish-for, Kimbrel may now be the leader in the clubhouse. Since February, many Nats players and executives lobbied ownership to pony up for Kimbrel despite his rocky second half in 2018. Fans, media and, for sure, me said: Take a shot?
By Sunday, Maddon stuck with starter Yu Darvish, leading 2-1 in the ninth. Hope, still not a strategy. On the 110th pitch, Joe got the memo: Yu lose.
Now the Nats enter a week — with eight games in seven days — that is wrapped in layers of irony. Bryce Harper will come to town for five games in four days with his highly touted Phillies likely to be knocked out for the season by the Nats team that he left. In Philadelphia, he has done almost a stat duplicate of his 2018 in D.C. And that tells a large story.
With 33 homers, 108 RBI and an .876 on-base-plus-slugging percentage entering Sunday — marks in which he ranked 30th, 12th and 44th in baseball — Harper has had a fine, typical slugging season for him. In FanGraphs’ all-encompassing Wins Above Replacement, his value (4.3 wins) ranks 30th among everyday players. Also, 14 starting pitchers are worth more, too.
So for the seventh time in his eight seasons, he has not been a “generational” player. The Nats have replaced perhaps half of his value in right field with Adam Eaton (2.3 WAR) while using $140 million to sign left-hander Patrick Corbin, whose 4.9 WAR is comparable to Harper’s. Net-net, for one year, the Nats have used resources better without him. Check back annually for 12 more years.
When the Nats rebuilt — without Harper, Gio Gonzalez, Daniel Murphy, Tanner Roark, Matt Wieters and several discarded relievers — they did a stellar job of fixing several positions and keeping others adequate. It was high-degree-of-difficulty juggling that has the Nats on track to win 89 games — seven more than last year — despite injuries.
But the bullpen is, to date, an epic fail, both in construction and in the ability of a second-year manager to minimize its weaknesses. We will never know who might have done better — but many of us will wonder.
This eight-game final week, which seemed diabolically designed to put the maximum pressure on the Nats’ pitching staff and its handling, will give a spunky but deeply flawed team a final chance to put itself in the best position for October — with a wild-card game at home. It will be a fair fight. Milwaukee has an easy schedule. But it doesn’t have Yelich.
The Nats, despite their shaky September, have had good fortune. Their toughest wild-card matchup on paper — against Jacob deGrom and the Mets — is on life support in Queens.
The Brewers are a solid slugging team, but they have no dominant starter — on paper — to equal Max Scherzer or Strasburg. For the whole year, they have been outscored by two runs. In their past 102 games, the Nats have outscored their foes by 159 runs. The Brewers may have Josh Hader to close, but they’re no juggernaut.
Finally, in the best piece of dumb luck, the Cubs’ collapse almost certainly means the Nats — if they give any sort of credible account of themselves at home this week — will have a game Oct. 1. As a result, their plan to use their Big Three starters out of the bullpen in the postseason — very selectively but in the highest-leverage spots — may come into play.
If that Nats’ bullpen gate does open Oct. 1, the first man out may well be Corbin and his 224 strikeouts. Can everyone say, “Please.”