The Nationals went 93-69 in 2019 and won the World Series, then returned in 2020 to go 24-36 and finish tied for last place in the National League East.
There are two lines of thought when trying to analyze what happened last season. Either this was the start of an inevitable downward trend for an organization that spent so long climbing the mountain to finally reach the ultimate peak, or it was a complete and utter aberration because of the unprecedented circumstances of the pandemic-shortened season.
Your particular answer to the above dilemma likely shapes your view of the 2021 Nationals. If you believe the 2020 season carried some legitimacy, you’re probably pessimistic about their chances this year. But if you believe the 60-game season was illegitimate, you’re probably quite optimistic about the next six months.
The Nationals have been careful themselves not to speak of 2020 in those illegitimate terms. They’re not trying to cling too much to the championship they won 17 months ago and gloss over everything that has transpired since.
“I don’t want to do any bulletin board material,” reliever Daniel Hudson said with a laugh last week during a Zoom session with reporters. “The Dodgers won last year. We’re not defending champs.”
Indeed, they are not. But read between the lines and it’s not hard to see how little stock the Nationals put in 2020, given the conditions. Nor is it hard to see how motivated they are to get the upcoming 162-game season under way and re-establish their place among baseball’s elite franchises.
“I think if there was ever a season to have a World Series high and not do well, that was the one, if you’re going to think about it that way,” Hudson said. “To come out in a 162-game season and lay an egg, that would’ve felt a lot worse after the World Series. But to have that kind of ‘whatever’ season, 60 games, that was the season to do that.”
Every defending champion has to overcome the inevitable hangover that follows. How can a group of players possibly be as motivated to win it all as they were the first time around? And in the Nationals’ case, it would be understandable if motivation was even tougher to summon when the follow-up season was condensed to 60 games and played in front of zero fans.
The man who has played in more games than anyone else since the franchise arrived in D.C. in 2005 but did not set foot in the clubhouse once during the 2020 season certainly understands it.
“This is just me talking, defending them: I couldn’t imagine how hard it would be to go from what we did in 2019 into the situation and the atmosphere they had to play in last year,” said Ryan Zimmerman, who opted out of the season for family reasons. “There’s no excuses for anybody. You’re a professional athlete that gets paid to play and win. But I can only imagine how hard it would be to get excited and to get pumped up to go out there.”
That’s why the most important addition to the 2021 Nationals might not be Josh Bell, Jon Lester or Brad Hand. It might just be the 5,000 season-ticket plan holders who are going to be allowed into Nationals Park for Thursday night’s opener against the Mets and the rest of the upcoming six-game homestand.
No, it’s not 40,000 fans. It won’t be a full house, not even close. But the 5,000 who do brave the bitter wind chill forecast for Thursday night might just represent the most excited crowd this team has ever had for a season opener, including the 2005 return to Washington and the 2008 debut of Nationals Park.
The players certainly believe it’s going to make a huge difference.
“Five thousand fans is going to be better than no fans,” catcher Yan Gomes said. “Hopefully, they’re all going to be ours, so they’re going to be cheering for us. Either way, it’s a step in the right direction.”
Of course, it doesn’t matter how many fans are in the stands if the players don’t perform. The Nationals know they can’t just take the field and morph back into World Series contenders.
But they do feel like they have the roster to make another run. A rotation of Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Patrick Corbin, Joe Ross and Lester. A lineup that already had two elite hitters in Juan Soto and Trea Turner, now bolstered by the additions of Bell and Kyle Schwarber, plus the return of Zimmerman and Starlin Castro. A bullpen that has question marks but still looks better on paper than it has in some time.
And a clubhouse that is again laden with veterans who foster a winning culture to anyone new who joins the group.
“The biggest thing, because we have so many new faces, is how they were going to all respond to one another,” manager Davey Martinez said of his No. 1 priority entering spring training. “From day one, they clicked. Getting Josh Bell here, Schwarber, Lester, Hernán Pérez, (Jordy) Mercer, all those guys. They’re all new, but they all came in here with eyes wide open. They didn’t know what to expect, but they fit right in. It’s great to leave here knowing that these guys are pulling for each other and pulling the rope in the same direction.”
That camaraderie and common purpose was as defining a characteristic of the 2019 Nationals as was the star-studded rotation or relentless lineup. It wasn’t the same in 2020, not because it was a bad group but because the situation wasn’t real conducive to building chemistry.
In 2021, things should look and feel more normal again. And the Nats believe that, more than anything, is reason to believe they’re primed to prove 2020 was an aberration.
“We’re a winning team, a winning franchise,” general manager Mike Rizzo said. “We’re all about winning. We’ve won as many games as anybody around. We’ve won a world championship. We’ve won a division title and wild cards. So we’re winners, man. We’re about winning. Our goal is to win, and anything short of not winning is a disappointment and unacceptable to us.”