There have been moments over the last 3 1/2 weeks when the Nationals looked very much like legitimate contenders, a team with a deep lineup, a dominant (when healthy) rotation and a revamped bullpen that might actually have morphed into a strength for the first time in a long time.
And then there have been moments when the defending champions have looked nothing like the club that played .667 ball for more than six months last year, the current lineup ravaged by injuries and underperforming veterans, the rotation failing to live up to its reputation and the bullpen prone to the occasional meltdown.
As this lightning round of a baseball season reaches the one-third mark - they’ll get there following tonight’s game in Atlanta - it’s hard to figure out who exactly the 2020 Nationals are. And that’s true not only for those observing from afar but for those inside the clubhouse and dugout as well.
“We’re kind of playing seesaw baseball, really,” manager Davey Martinez said.
It’s a good description, because there’s been nothing steady about the season’s first 19 games. The Nats have alternated between elite and dismal play so far.
They looked great for a couple nights last week at Citi Field, ransacking the Mets by 12 runs Monday and then coming back Tuesday for a tense 2-1 victory. And they blasted the Orioles for 15 runs Friday night, making clear which local franchise just won a championship and which one is coming off back-to-back 100-loss seasons.
But then the second half of the Mets series went awry and the Nationals lost by a combined score of 19-8. And then they dropped the conclusion of their suspended game with Baltimore and looked lifeless during another Saturday loss at Camden Yards that gave the season series to the O’s.
Most concerning is the spate of injuries to prominent players over the last week in particular. Stephen Strasburg, Starlin Castro and Sean Doolittle all were placed on the injured list, and none is likely to return soon. Will Harris just returned from the IL but looked shaky in his first appearance out of the bullpen. Howie Kendrick couldn’t even pinch-hit the last two days because of tight hamstrings, a concern given the time he missed last season with that ailment.
And that list doesn’t include Max Scherzer, who had to come out of one start after one inning due to his own hamstring tweak, though after Sunday’s 109-pitch outing the ace was adamant it’s no longer an issue.
Regardless, the Nationals are now asking others to step in and contribute to account for the losses. Erick Fedde is taking Strasburg’s place in the rotation. Twenty-year-old Luis García is the new second baseman with Castro out. Prospects Seth Romero and Dakota Bacus are now in the bullpen. Fellow pitching prospect Wil Crowe could make his major league debut as well, soon after being added to the traveling taxi squad in advance of tonight’s series opener in Atlanta, according to a source familiar with the move.
“Here’s an opportunity for other guys you might not have thought of that can do some big things for us, and they have an opportunity to go out there and play baseball,” Scherzer said. “That’s the exciting part: To have other guys step up and have success. That’s the mark of a true winning ballclub. It’s not just the guys you think are going to do it. It’s everybody around you that’s going out there grinding and finding ways to have success. When you have that happen, that’s the real sign of the team. So, if we do get those guys back, it just makes us a better ballclub.”
The road doesn’t get any easier. After playing 13 of their first 19 games against American League East opponents, the Nationals now start seeing a heavy dose of National League East rivals. A full 34 of their final 41 scheduled games are intradivision, including their next 10 (at the Braves, home vs. the Marlins and Phillies).
At 8-11 in a season in which 16 of the 30 clubs will qualify for the playoffs, there’s plenty of time left to make up the ground necessary to reach October. But things do need to take a sustained turn for the better, sooner rather than later.
“We’ve just got to hang in there,” Martinez said. “This is a weird season. It’s strange. But I tell the boys: ‘We go 1-0 every day and show up to the ballpark, let’s bang heads and do the best we can and come out with a victory.’”