Nobody has repeated as World Series champions in two decades. Suffice it to say, it’s a huge challenge trying to go back-to-back under normal circumstances. And the 2020 season has been the most abnormal season of our lives.
We’ve accepted for some time the Nationals would not be repeating this year. Injuries, poor performances, a lack of depth and the understandable diminished motivation that was part of this season all came together to produce a disappointing, losing record.
Yet when they took the field tonight for the finale of their four-game series with the Phillies, the Nats somehow remained mathematically alive for the eighth and final berth in an expanded 2020 postseason field.
When they departed the field following a lopsided 12-3 loss, they were all but finally assured of going home for the winter. One of three other contenders (Brewers, Cardinals, Giants) still needed to win one more game before it was official. Milwaukee and St. Louis lost. But San Francisco won, and so it can now be said with absolute certainty: There will be a new World Series champion. Whether you believe this October should be viewed with the usual legitimacy or not, it will count, and the Nationals will not be participating in it.
“We understand the kind of season that’s been going on,” catcher Yan Gomes said in a postgame Zoom session with reporters. “It’s no excuse at all. We just haven’t been able to put those runs together, and I think we’re paying for it.”
It required their first four-game winning streak of the season, plus several other advantageous developments elsewhere in recent days, to even keep the Nats’ infinitesimal hopes alive this long. Players and staffers had come to accept the season’s eventual outcome a week or two ago.
But tonight provided some closure for a team that, while disappointed in this year’s result, still intends to celebrate last year’s championship whenever fans are next allowed into the park. And then intends to go out and make another run at another title.
“Next year is going to be so much better,” outfielder Juan Soto said. “We’ll have the guys healthy. We just have to keep them healthy.”
As D.C. fans fret over the Nationals’ disappointing follow-up to a championship season, the good folks in Philadelphia have been in full-scale panic mode as the local ballclub fades down the stretch and faces an uphill climb to reach the postseason for the first time since 2011.
And few have caused as much consternation among that famously fickly fan base as Bryce Harper, who while battling a bad back in recent weeks has seen his production fall off a cliff. It came to a head during the first three games of this series, when he went 0-for-9 with three walks and five strikeouts, continuing his 2020 struggles against his former club.
In nine games against the Nationals entering tonight, Harper was 4-for-28 with zero extra-base hits, one RBI, 12 walks and 14 strikeouts.
As always with the 27-year-old star, though, the lowest valleys are often followed by the highest peaks. You knew it was coming at some point. And tonight proved to be the night.
Facing his old Las Vegas childhood friend and teammate, Erick Fedde, Harper blasted an 0-1 sinker deep to left field and over the visitors’ bullpen in the top of the first to break out of his slump and give the Phillies a quick 1-0 lead.
“I didn’t like that pitch,” Fedde said. “He punished it.”
Some time later, Harper stepped to the plate to lead off the top of the sixth. Fedde tried to surprise him with a first-pitch curveball, one that was down and away, typically a good spot for such a pitch. But Harper managed to reach out and drive it to left-center for his second homer of the night to extend the Phillies’ lead. (He finished 2-for-2 with those homers and three intentional walks.)
“That’s a pitch on my scouting report I like, and I think I can live with,” Fedde said. “He gets paid a lot of money. Sometimes you’re gonna get beat there.”
Overall, Fedde actually put together a strong outing. He pitched efficiently (fewer than 15 per inning), he walked only one while striking out five and he gave his team a chance. And for the first time in his career, he completed seven innings.
“That’s all we could ask: He kept us in the game,” manager Davey Martinez said of the right-hander, who in his final three starts of the season allowed a total of five runs and 12 hits over 18 innings. “These last three starts, he’s done really, really well. That’s an awesome way for him to finish.”
Alas, it didn’t mean much with a Nationals lineup that couldn’t get anything going against Zach Eflin until it was too late. The Phillies right-hander carved up a lineup that was missing Trea Turner - scratched about two hours before first pitch because, in Martinez’s words, “he’s beat up” - with ease.
The Nats got a one-out double from Gomes in the fifth, then saw him take third on a wild pitch and score on Luis García’s grounder to second. That’s all they got against Eflin until Soto homered in the bottom of the ninth to spoil his attempt at a complete game.
And so it was that a season that began with visions of another deep October run ended with four games still on the docket in late September.
There hasn’t been meaningless baseball played around here in a while. The Nationals can only hope they don’t experience it again for a long time.
“What I do like is our potential for 2021,” Martinez said. “I’ll say it again: Our starting pitching, those horses are coming back. The back end of our bullpen has shaped up. Those guys will be fresh and ready to go. We’ve got some really young talent, and some other young talent that hopefully we’ll see in spring training that will help us in 2021. I’m really excited about the future of this organization and where we’re headed. I do believe in my heart that next year we’ll compete again for a division title and get in the playoffs.”