ST. LOUIS - At 10:03 p.m. CDT Sunday, as Ryan Madson prepared to deliver his 2-2 pitch to David Bote at Wrigley Field, the Nationals were one strike away from moving to within 4 1/2 games of first place in the National League East.
By 10:21 p.m. CDT Wednesday, as Trea Turner’s fly ball to center field at Busch Stadium settled into Harrison Bader’s glove, the Nationals were nine games back in the division.
Yes, in the span of 72 hours, 18 minutes, this team lost 4 1/2 games in the standings. That’s what happens when you lose four in a row and the team you’re chasing wins five in a row.
It’s a striking and staggering fall from grace for the Nationals, one that has left the clubhouse trying to grasp at whatever straws may still be dangling out there to try to remain optimistic.
“We’re going to need a lot of help, that’s for sure,” Jeremy Hellickson said. “I was part of a team that came back from nine games in a month. So, still not over. But we’ve made it pretty tough on ourselves here. Just got to start winning ballgames and get help.”
The team Hellickson was referencing was the 2011 Rays. That team was nine games out of the American League wild card race on Sept. 3. Twenty-five days later, Evan Longoria’s walk-off homer down the left field line at Tropicana Field propelled the Rays past the “Chicken and Beer” Red Sox and into the postseason in dramatic fashion.
So it can be done. But here’s the difference: That Tampa Bay club was 74-63 before it started making its late surge. It won 17 of its last 25 games to finish 91-71. This Washington club is now 60-61. The season is three-quarters complete, and this team has a losing record.
Isn’t it hard for Nationals players not to look at the standings and be daunted by the situation?
“No, I think we have a lot of pride on this team, a lot of guys who really compete, really grind out at-bats and compete on the mound as well,” Turner said. “I don’t think it’s as much about trying to make up ground as it is trying to play good baseball. We want to play good baseball. We want to play with energy and to have some fun. And if we can do those things, I think, at the end of the year the standings will be fine. But it’s a matter of playing good baseball, and we’ve got to figure out how to do that.”
The Nationals played good baseball last weekend in Chicago. Everyone acknowledged that. They still lost two of three games, blowing late leads twice.
The last three nights in St. Louis? The brand of baseball hasn’t been as impressive.
“We obviously went into Chicago and played good, probably should have won a couple more of those games that we didn’t,” Ryan Zimmerman said. “But then obviously came here and haven’t played great baseball. So this time of year, when you need to win each and every game, it’s not what we’re trying to do.”
This wasn’t supposed to happen, not to this group of players, not this year. Except the same could be said of the 2013 and 2015 Nationals, teams coming off division titles and overwhelmingly favored to repeat.
Neither of those teams did it, of course. Each was an abject disappointment, and each missed the playoffs. With as many veterans and returning players as the 2018 roster had, didn’t they learn anything to be better prepared to avoid the same pitfalls once again?
“I think we’ve learned not to worry about expectations, good or bad,” Zimmerman said. “At the end of the day, we have to go out and play games and do things and execute to win. At this level it doesn’t matter if you’re supposed to win 100 games or lose 100 games, if you have a $200 million payroll or $75 million payroll. They’re all professionals, and if you don’t do what you’re supposed to do on any given night, you’re going to get beat. Obviously, we haven’t been doing a very good job of that lately, and we have to do a better job of that.”