Though they don’t want to admit it publicly, the Nationals have reached the point in their season in which the playoffs are no longer a realistic goal. Sunday’s 8-4 loss to the Braves left them at 17-28, a whopping 10 games behind Atlanta in the National League East and five games behind the Giants for the NL’s eighth and final postseason berth.
To finish .500, the Nats would need to somehow go 13-2 down the stretch. A sub-.500 record might still be good enough to squeak in as the final wild card, but even to get to 28-32 they’d have to go 11-4 the rest of the way.
That’s just not realistic at this point, not with the roster that’s currently active.
This 60-game season has become a war of attrition for the Nationals, who have seen their projected roster decimated by injuries and many who have been summoned to replace the fallen struggle to hold on. In some cases, the replacements themselves have suffered injuries.
Since the middle of summer training exactly two months ago, the Nats have placed (in order) the following 12 players on the injured list: Wander Suero, Roenis Elías, Juan Soto, Will Harris, Sean Doolittle, Sam Freeman, Starlin Castro, Stephen Strasburg, Seth Romero, Javy Guerra, Dakota Bacus and Howie Kendrick. Only Suero, Soto, Harris and Doolittle have returned, and Doolittle has since gone back on the IL.
Add the two prominent players who opted out of the season (Ryan Zimmerman and Joe Ross) to that list, and the Nationals roster right now bears no resemblance to the one Mike Rizzo and Davey Martinez envisioned back when they were making initial plans for this season.
But one of the key attributes to the Nats’ championship run last year - a roster full of experienced veterans - may have been a liability this year.
“We see that there’s certain players that take to the start and stop of the season different than others,” Rizzo said Sunday during a Zoom session with reporters. “I think that you saw the successes we had in 2019 of having a veteran-laden team that played together through the good times and the bad times. We navigated that 162 plus the playoffs very, very well. And I think you saw the start and stop (this year) adversely affect those same type of veteran players.
“Obviously, it’s much more difficult for the veteran players to go through that Spring Training 1 and 2, if you will. That quick ramp-up they had to go through, it’s a lot more difficult for those players than it is for the younger, 21- and 22-year-old players. Nothing seems to affect them physically. I think that had a lot to do with it.”
The Nationals have certainly seen their share of veterans succumb to injury after trying to play regularly following a three-week summer camp. That includes some who haven’t gone on the IL but nonetheless have needed to miss several games in a row to let their bodies heal from nagging ailments, like Asdrúbal Cabrera, Eric Thames and Adam Eaton.
Then there are the relievers who have been forced into excessive usage because of a combination of injuries to others and the ineffectiveness of the Nationals rotation. That problem came to a head Sunday when Martinez had few reliable options to replace Max Scherzer for the final four innings of a game his team led at the time.
Daniel Hudson was still recovering from a 28-pitch blown save Friday night. Tanner Rainey was unavailable due to forearm tightness after pitching in 20 of the Nationals’ first 42 games. Rookie Kyle Finnegan appeared in 19 of 43 games. Suero pitched three days in a row earlier this month and three out of four days this weekend.
Suffice it to say, this team needs today off before heading to Florida for its final road trip of the season.
“Very much looking forward to it,” Martinez said. “We worry now, because yes, we do have a day off, but all of a sudden we’ve got all these doubleheaders coming up.”
Ah yes, the doubleheaders. The Nationals are about to pay the piper for unexpected days off earlier in the season. After one more off-day Thursday, they are scheduled to end the season with 13 games in 10 days, with three doubleheaders in five days (two at Miami, one at home vs. the Phillies).
How are they going to cover all those innings? With eight games in a five-day span coming up, they’ll need three fill-in starters in addition to an already struggling five-man rotation.
So, yes, the Nationals remain mathematically alive. And they insist they aren’t packing it in until that’s no longer the case. But deep down, they already know where this is headed. At this point, they’re just trying to make it through the final two weeks of a season they never expected would be this challenging with whatever roster they still have available to them.
“We’re here to win games,” Rizzo said. “That’s our goal: To win today’s game and to win as many games as we can. With that said, you’re going to see a steady diet of our young players and players we’re committing to for the long term. But with that said, we’re still trying to win baseball games. Each and every time out, we’re expecting to win and disappointed when we lose.”