CHICAGO - The Nationals have gone 12-10 since the All-Star break, but consider how five of those 10 losses went down ...
* July 24 at Milwaukee: Up 4-3 in the seventh, the Nationals blew the lead, then lost 5-4 in 10 innings.
* July 28 at Miami: Down 1-0 in the ninth, the Nationals rallied to tie the game, then lost 2-1 in 10.
* Aug. 7 vs. Atlanta: Tied 1-1 in the ninth, the Nationals lost 3-1.
* Aug. 10 at Chicago: Up 2-0 in the sixth, the Nationals let the Cubs tie it, then took the lead in the seventh en route to a 3-2 loss.
* Aug. 12 at Chicago: Up 3-0 with two outs in the ninth, Ryan Madson gave up a walk-off grand slam to David Bote, resulting in a crushing 4-3 loss.
The Nationals wake up this morning 5 1/2 games back in the National League East. Had they merely won three of those nip-and-tuck contests over the last three weeks, they’d be 2 1/2 back. Had they won all five, they’d currently be 1/2-game out.
How, then, does a team pick itself up off the mat this many times and continue to believe things will turn for the better? That’s the challenge facing these guys right now. And though the mood inside the tiny visitors’ clubhouse at Wrigley Field late Sunday night was as downtrodden as it’s been all season, there also continued to be a message of encouragement and togetherness that seemed hard to believe given all that has transpired.
“I wouldn’t say it’s been hard for us to stay together,” Ryan Zimmerman said. “We’ve got a good group of guys here, veteran guys who understand that if you start to come apart at all, that’s going to make it even harder.”
Yeah, but could anyone in that clubhouse be blamed if things did come apart after Sunday night’s dagger of a loss?
Here’s the most remarkable thing about it: One more strike from Madson, and everyone’s saying that was the Nationals’ best win of the season. They played a near-perfect game, from Max Scherzer’s seven innings of brilliance to an early run scratched out against an equally brilliant Cole Hamels to Koda Glover’s lights-out performance in the bottom of the eighth to Zimmerman’s oh-so-clutch, two-run single off Brandon Kintzler in the top of the ninth.
“We played good, we really did,” a still-beaten-down Davey Martinez said. “We played good this series, got to keep going. Stinks that we lost two games when we should’ve come out with three wins, but let’s keep going. I tell the boys we gotta keep going. We’re good, and we’re going to be good.”
The Nationals legitimately have played good baseball the last 3 1/2 weeks. They’re getting more production from more members of their lineup. They’re getting much better performances from their rotation beyond Scherzer. They’ve outscored the opposition 124-84.
They simply can’t win close games late, as those five previously mentioned outcomes suggest in crystal clear terms.
So what is it about this team that gives players reason to believe this well-established pattern can still change?
“Look, tonight we played really good baseball,” Scherzer said. “We did good things at the plate. We were in a nail biter of a game. And we were one strike away from winning that thing. Here we are, pushing one of the better teams in the NL all the way to the end. So you’ve got to think that we’re a pretty good team as well. And I think they would think we’re a pretty good team as well, because of how we played this series.
“It’s just a matter of adjusting your mindset, put this behind you. As much as it sucks, just put it behind you. And show up at the park tomorrow ready to do your job.”
It sounds simple enough. But as they’ve repeatedly shown all summer long, and most definitely this weekend, nothing comes simple to the 2018 Nationals.