Ask anyone who was around the 2019 Nationals what turned their season around and you’ll get two answers: They got healthy after a rash of injuries devastated the roster in April and early May, and they relaxed and started having fun on and off the field.
Five games into the 2020 season, the Nationals are again dealing with the absence of several key players (Juan Soto, Stephen Strasburg, Ryan Zimmerman) for a variety of reasons. And they most certainly don’t look like they’re having fun on or off the field.
It’s certainly understandable, given the circumstances. But after Tuesday night’s lackluster 5-1 loss to the Blue Jays, they acknowledged it doesn’t matter what’s going on in the outside world. Once they’re inside Nationals Park, they need to remember to have fun again.
“That’s what I’ve been trying to do the last few days,” shortstop Trea Turner said. “I’ve been trying to come to the ballpark and just enjoy being here and enjoy the time we have. Because you don’t know what’s going to happen. When you show up that day, you don’t know if anybody’s going to test positive or nobody, if one team is going good or bad. I think it’s a lot up in the air. I think it’s on us as individuals to come to the ballpark with a good attitude and try to make the most of it and enjoy each day.”
It’s easier said than done. The sport is reeling from the coronavirus outbreak in the Marlins clubhouse and the domino effect it has one other clubs, including a Nats team that now has nobody to play this weekend. Closer to home, the Nationals are still without Soto (waiting to be cleared to return despite back-to-back negative coronavirus tests), Strasburg (nerve injury in his right hand) and Zimmerman (opted out before the start of the season).
How are the Nats supposed to have fun right now?
“We’ve got to find a way,” manager Davey Martinez said. “Everybody’s under the same circumstances, so we’ve got to go out there and loosen up and do the little things. I talk all the time about doing the little things and big things will happen.”
On the field, the 1-4 Nationals do look tight. They’ve made mistakes in the field, including two errors by second baseman Starlin Castro during Tuesday’s loss. They’ve made mistakes on the bases, including Turner getting picked off Tuesday. They haven’t hit in the clutch at all; they’re 1-for-11 with two outs and runners in scoring position for the season. And they’ve given up a bunch of home runs, 10 of them in five games.
It’s all so reminiscent of April and May of last year. Trouble is, they can’t afford to wait until Game 51 to start playing well this time around.
Martinez has pointed to veteran utilityman Emilio Bonifácio as someone who could bring out teammates’ personalities, much as Gerardo Parra did last year. Bonifácio has gotten some other players to start playing an imaginary trumpet when they reach base and has begun bringing an actual trumpet to the dugout. Trouble is, they haven’t done enough at the plate to warrant using it yet.
But cheesy props and hand gestures or not, the Nationals understand there’s only one surefire way to make sure guys are having fun again.
“It’s winning,” Turner said. “Everybody has fun when you win. You win two or three games in a row, we’re going to look like we won the World Series. I think winning definitely cures all. But at the same time, I think last year we built a chemistry and it took a little time for that to evolve. Once again, in a shorter season you’ve got to try to speed that up a little bit. But we’ll figure it out. ...
“It’s a matter of relaxing and enjoying each other. I feel like those go hand in hand with winning. When you relax, you win. And when you win, you relax. If we can get those two things going, I think we’ll be all right.”