They took the field for the 60th and final time in 2020, an act many doubted would be possible back when this unprecedented baseball season began 10 weeks ago. Could they really complete a season, with regional travel, during a pandemic?
There were some notable hiccups along the way, plenty of postponements, relocated road games and six doubleheaders. But today the Nationals did complete their 60-game slate, trouncing the Mets 15-5 to conclude a disappointing year on a small high note.
At 26-34, the defending champs didn’t come close to realizing their full potential. But neither did they collapse the way they looked like they might a couple weeks ago when things hit rock bottom. They won seven of their last nine, including three in row over the last 28 hours, to catch New York and finish in a tie for fourth place in the National League East. They wound up only three games behind the 29-31 Brewers for the eighth and final spot in the expanded NL playoff field.
For Davey Martinez, who has oft-cited the strong finish by his 2018 club despite falling out of the race in August as a springboard for the next year’s championship run, this is not insignificant.
“I’m going to sit back and take in all the positives this year, and the growth of some of these guys I’ve seen this year, and build off that for 2021,” the recently extended manager said in a Zoom call with reporters. “We’ve said it many times: These guys don’t quit. They play hard every day. I’m proud of them hanging in there and finishing up strong like they did.”
On a team level, this was an underachieving season. For a couple of individuals, it was outstanding.
Juan Soto capped off his remarkable 2020 with a walk, a single, an early exit and a .351 batting average to become the first player in Nationals history to win the NL batting crown.
“I feel really happy,” he said. “I just thank God for everything. I feel really amazing. I’m glad it just happened.”
Soto’s excellence extended well beyond his ability to hit a baseball without opposing defenders catching it. He finished with a .490 on-base percentage, .695 slugging percentage and 1.185 OPS, the highest mark in each of those categories for any major leaguer with at least 195 plate appearances since Barry Bonds in 2004.
Obviously, it will forever be impossible to compare the 60-game 2020 season with any that came before it. But Soto’s numbers shouldn’t be brushed off, both because he topped everyone else who played under these conditions this season and because he did it all as a 21-year-old, making him the youngest NL batting champ in the modern era.
“He’s not scared of anything,” teammate Trea Turner said. “He’s not scared of anybody. He’s not scared of any situation. He wants to hit every time, no matter up by 10, down by 10. The fear factor just isn’t there with him, which is really special for a kid that young.”
Turner, of course, enjoyed his own breakthrough season, ascending from one of baseball’s best leadoff men into one of baseball’s best all-around offensive players.
With a grand slam, a two-run single and a bases-loaded walk this afternoon, Turner completed a 7-RBI game and finished his season with a .335 batting average, 12 homers, 41 RBIs, 12 stolen bases, a league-high 78 hits and a .982 OPS.
“Everything that he does, he’s matured so much,” Martinez said. “He’s become a leader. Another guy that had a tremendous year through a difficult season, but came out and played hard every day. Today is a testament to him. He wanted to play the whole game. That’s just what you’re going to get from Trea.”
Turner and Soto individually performed far better than the Nationals as a whole did. But as a group, they did finish better than they started.
It still goes in the books as an underachieving year. But it also goes in the books as the strangest year in baseball history. And so the mere fact they completed the schedule on time and without illness is reason to walk away with at least some feeling of satisfaction.
“I’m going to go home and take all those positives with me and build from that,” Martinez said. “And also see how we can get better for 2021. ...
“The good thing is - and I’ve always said this - we did a great job of keeping everybody healthy. That was my biggest concern. We left here, and no one got sick. That, to me, is a plus.”