After a season that crumbled, Nats have a lot to do

The high point of the 2021 season for the Nationals, as it turned out, came June 30, probably right at the moment Trea Turner slid into third base to complete the third cycle of his career. The Nats were well on their way to a 15-6 romp over the Rays, completing a 19-9 month of June to raise their record to 42-40, standing in second place in the National League East, only 2 1/2 games behind the Mets.

Everything seemed to be right there in front of them, and an exciting second half of baseball awaited for the Nationals and their fans.

Little could they have known what actually awaited them the rest of the way, that Turner's jammed finger suffered on that triple was going to be just the first in a series of calamities that would befall them in the coming days and weeks.

Kyle Schwarber, whose June home run barrage turned into national news, would soon suffer a major hamstring injury. Yan Gomes and Alex Avila would both get hurt in early July, leaving the organization without any experienced catchers. Joe Ross and Tanner Rainey would land on the injured list as well. Stephen Strasburg's attempted return from what at that point was still being called a neck injury would come to abrupt halt, the right-hander now needing major surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome.

Thumbnail image for Scherzer-Upset-Miami-Sidebar.jpgThose who remained healthy fell apart. Patrick Corbin produced the worst pitching season in club history. Brad Hand crumbled as closer. Max Scherzer would blow an 8-0 lead on a grand slam by an opposing reliever.

Then Starlin Castro would be suspended following an investigation for domestic violence. A drive-by shooting took place on South Capitol Street outside Nationals Park during a game. And a season that once appeared to be heading in the right direction completely collapsed.

By July 30, with his team now eight games under .500, general manager Mike Rizzo would trade away eight prominent veterans in exchange for 12 prospects. And the Nationals' first significant rebuilding project in a decade would commence.

By the time it finally ended Sunday with a 7-5 loss to the wild card-bound Red Sox, the Nats barely looked like themselves anymore. They went an abysmal 18-42 after the trade deadline, the worst 60-game closing stretch in club history, and finished 65-97, last in the NL East.

"Life comes at you fast," Rizzo said Sunday. "And it came at us fast pretty quickly this year."

Why did it get so bad? In a word: Pitching. The staff as a whole had a 5.46 ERA after the trade deadline. Total up only the bullpen numbers and you get a 5.71 ERA (third-worst in the majors), 1.61 WHIP (worst), 5.08 walks per nine innings (worst) and a record of 5-22 (the fewest wins and the most losses of any bullpen during that span).

Is it any wonder the Red Sox swept the final weekend series, not by jumping out to early leads and holding on, but by doing nearly all of their damage late against a Nationals bullpen that was running on fumes at the end.

The pertinent stat: In innings one through five, the Nats gave up only two total runs. In innings six through nine, they gave up 14. This is how it went through August, September and the first three days of October.

"I think the pitching definitely has to improve," Rizzo said. "This game is built on pitching."

A Nationals organization that won four division titles and a World Series on the strength of its pitching staff now finds itself trying to completely rebuild that group. And the immediate results were mixed.

In spite of all their pitching woes, the Nats did wind up having a very competent lineup. They actually led the NL in batting average (.258) and on-base percentage (.337) for the season. And over these last 60 games, they scored an average of 4.6 runs per game.

"I've seen a lot of positives," Rizzo said. "Some negatives. But all in all, our young players, the core group that's going to be part of our future, I see a lot of positives and a lot of improvements."

But for any positive steps they took this season to identify future pieces of the puzzle (Keibert Ruiz, Josiah Gray, Lane Thomas, Luis García), the Nationals still find themselves unsure about the fates of others (Carter Kieboom, Erick Fedde, Victor Robles).

"I saw some good things over the last couple of months," manager Davey Martinez said. "Some of our young players played well. And I'm looking forward to 2022 spring training and the future for this organization."

The Nationals do not know when that bright future will actually come to fruition. Maybe it all comes together in 2022. More likely, though, it won't happen until 2023 or 2024.

They just know they don't want to ever experience a summer like the one they just did.

"We've been an excellent team for more than a decade, and we have an ownership group that wants to win," Rizzo said. "We have a front office that wants to win. We've got a GM that hates to lose more than he likes to win. So we're about winning, and we've always been about winning. We've been as successful as any team in baseball over the past 11 years, and I don't see a willingness to change that."

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