Even the most pessimistic of observers out there, those who insisted all along the Nationals would not win the National League East this season, could not have reasonably believed this team would be facing elimination on Sept. 21, with more than a week left on the regular-season schedule.
If the Nats were going to fall short in their quest to win a third straight division title, it wouldn’t happen until the final weekend, after a soul-crushing loss that allowed a surprise rival to celebrate with champagne and beer elsewhere.
That, of course, isn’t how the 2018 season played out for the Nationals. They had come to grips several weeks ago that it simply wasn’t going to happen this year, that this team just didn’t have a big run in it to escape the near-.500 rut it has been in for months. And tonight they took the field to face the Mets knowing they might depart it having mathematically been eliminated, if they lost and the Braves simultaneously beat the Phillies in Atlanta.
Then the Nationals went out and fulfilled their half of the bargain, getting shut down by Cy Young Award favorite Jacob deGrom during a 4-2 loss that once again dropped them to the .500 mark at 77-77. And then the Braves did their part as well, rallying to score five runs in the bottom of the seventh en route to a 6-5 win that put the stake through the Nats’ heart. They’re nine games back with eight to play, and thus they can no longer win the division.
Technically speaking, it’s not officially over yet. The Nationals’ elimination number for the NL’s final wild card berth is now two, pending the result of the Cardinals’ game with the Giants. But that final elimination will occur sometime in the next few days, at which point the Nats will officially turn the page to 2019.
“We control what we control, and that’s winning ballgames,” said Bryce Harper, a division champion in four of his seven seasons in D.C. “We haven’t done it the past two nights. So if they win, they’re going to win the division. It’s part of the game. That’s what happens: One team loses, one team wins. Got a good Braves team over there that’s playing good baseball, and that’s part of sports.”
The Nationals tried to do something dramatic themselves tonight, scoring one run in the bottom of the ninth and bringing the tying run to the plate. But Juan Soto struck out on a 98-mph fastball from Robert Gsellman, and Ryan Zimmerman flied out to right to end the game.
“The talk in the clubhouse, as you see it again tonight, is they want to win every game,” manager Davey Martinez said. “They’re not going to quit. We could have had the tying run up today with a chance to win the game again. We had the tying run up. So they’re not going to quit. I know they’re going to finish this out.”
The Nationals knew they couldn’t afford to dig themselves into an early hole tonight, not with deGrom and his sub-2.00 ERA on the mound for the Mets. So it was particularly disheartening when Victor Robles took a bad route on Amed Rosario’s line drive to center field on Joe Ross’ very first pitch of the game, turning what could’ve been an out into a leadoff double. Three batters later, Rosario came around to score on Jay Bruce’s two-out RBI single to left.
The Nats did get the run back quickly in the bottom of the second, thanks to Anthony Rendon’s leadoff walk (which extended his streak of games reaching base to 29), Soto’s single to right off a 98-mph fastball and Zimmerman’s sacrifice fly to the warning track in center.
But Ross couldn’t keep the game at 1-1, turning the top of the third into a mess that didn’t end until New York had scored three more runs. There were more defensive miscues, including an error by Rendon at third base, but there also were a bunch of well-struck balls off Ross, who served up five doubles in the first three innings alone.
“It didn’t help that they had some leadoff doubles,” the right-hander said. “Trying to work with no outs and a runner on second base isn’t very ideal. If I can do a better job of getting two-seam (fastballs) down and getting ground balls, then hopefully I’ll have more success the next time.”
Down 4-1, Ross did finish strong. He retired nine of the last 11 batters he faced and departed having thrown 95 pitches over six innings, maintaining his 93-94 mph fastball velocity. The results may not have been as positive as they were in Ross’ first full start in the big leagues after 14 months, but the fact his arm appears to be healthy is a positive enough development for the Nationals.
“This guy just came back from Tommy John surgery,” Martinez said. “Today we got him up to 95 pitches. That’s pretty encouraging.”