It took their 17th loss in 22 games (the club’s worst stretch since 2009), their eighth shutout in 30 games (more times than they were shut out in all of 2017) and a sub-.500 record in July (the first time that’s been the case since 2015) for someone inside the Nationals clubhouse to decide it was time to gather everyone together and let the emotions flow.
That someone, as you might expect, was Max Scherzer. The three-time Cy Young Award winner and staff ace wasn’t the only one who spoke out following the Nats’ 3-0 loss to the Red Sox, but it appears he was the instigator and the most vocal member of the team to speak during a meeting that wrapped up 15 minutes after the game ended.
“I think anytime Max holds the meeting or holds court, there’s going to be some yelling,” outfielder Adam Eaton said. “In baseball, you don’t have that type of intensity all the time, so it’s a little different. I think guys gravitate toward that. I think everybody has a kind of intensity bone in their body, and sometimes things need to be said in that fashion. So I think the boys are going to grab a hold of it and run with it.”
That it took this long for the meeting to take place underscores both how confident the Nationals have been for weeks that they would snap out of their funk before it got too bad, and how quickly the wheels have fallen off.
On June 7, as the Capitals were hoisting the Stanley Cup in Las Vegas, the Nationals were 36-25, tops in the National League East and having every reason to feel confident about themselves. In the four weeks since, they’ve gone 6-18, worst in the NL and better than only the Orioles and Royals in the major leagues.
And so they head out this afternoon for Independence Day barbeques and fireworks, not only in third place in the division but 10th out of 15 teams in the NL, 18th out of 30 teams in the majors. A comeback is not out of the question. But if it’s going to happen, it better start happening soon.
“Let’s get this thing going, you know,” shortstop Trea Turner said. “I think we all know that we are capable of playing better baseball, and it’s time we do it. It’s do-or-die now.”
This is wholly unfamiliar territory for the Nationals. It’s been written before, but it bears repeating: They have never found themselves in a true pennant race at any point in their previous six seasons of contention. The four times they won division titles, they never had to overcome anything greater than a four-game deficit and were comfortably ahead in September. The two times they didn’t win the division, they dug themselves into too deep a hole to make the final month of the season truly meaningful.
Only a handful of players - Ryan Zimmerman, Stephen Strasburg, Bryce Harper, Gio Gonzalez - have been a part of this entire run, but the vast majority of the roster was part of last season’s club that essentially went wire-to-wire and coasted into the National League Division Series ... before losing yet another five-game first-round series in agonizing fashion.
Those returning players recognize it’s going to have to be different this time around.
“I think a lot of guys are approaching it as: This is good for us,” Eaton said. “We needed to take our lumps now and play some meaningful games. I hate to compare it to hockey, but the Caps were kind of the same way. They had a really good year, but they weren’t the same as years past, where they were winning the division by however many games early and taking home the best record in hockey. Hopefully, we can scrape and claw and really find out what kind of team we have here, on the mound as well as in the box. I think that’s all you can do at this point.”
A good place for the Nationals to start would be in the batter’s box, since their talent-laden lineup has become impotent. Since June 7, they’ve scored an average of 3.67 runs per game (second-worst in the NL) despite ranking roughly in the middle of the pack in most statistical categories.
On countless occasions, they’ve kept games close enough and attempted late rallies by bringing the tying runner to the plate in the ninth. But they’ve yet to actually bring that tying runner home. Or, you know, take a lead earlier so that a ninth-inning rally isn’t necessary.
“I look in that dugout and I don’t see any guy hanging their head,” manager Davey Martinez said. “As you can tell, the last inning we put some good at-bats together and trying to make a comeback. That’s what you get from these guys every day. Now, we’ve got to start the games like that, and things have got to start happening.”
The Nationals just wrapped up a demoralizing stretch in which they not only lost a lot of games but played a lot of games against top competition (the Red Sox, Yankees, Phillies and Braves among the opponents). They now face an 11-game stretch leading into the All-Star break against the Marlins, Pirates and Mets before they open the second half against first-place Atlanta.
These final 11 games before the entire baseball world descends upon D.C. very well could make or break what was supposed to be a season of excitement around here but has devolved into something quite different.
“We have to keep grinding, keep doing our thing, and good things will happen,” Harper said. “We’ve never been in this position before, and I think it’s an exciting time for us. In years past, we’ve won the division by a lot of games, and we’re able to be behind right now. I’m excited to get out there and test it.”