Under the circumstances, Nats’ 7-9 start is worthy of praise

To suggest the Nationals’ season to date has been anything but a disappointment would be inaccurate and a far too rosy view of the situation. Between injuries, pitching blowups, struggling regulars and some really ugly games, there have been a lot of negative developments already in the last 2 1/2 weeks.

And yet, when you consider all that has befallen this team in such a short amount of time, and the stiff competition it has faced through the season’s first 16 games, it’s not unreasonable to look at the Nats’ 7-9 record and actually compliment them for it.

Right, Max?

“I’m not going to sit here and say I’m proud that we’re 7-9,” the one and only Max Scherzer said Wednesday night during a Zoom session with reporters. “That’s not the way you look at it. You want to be better than that. You always want to be winning, and winning at a high level.”

Well, sure. Of course, the Nationals want to have a better record than this. With the season now one-tenth completed, they want to be on pace to win way more than 70 games.

But let’s not discount what they have done to date under the circumstances.

Nine players opened the season on the COVID-19-related injury list, four of them having tested positive for the coronavirus. None were available for the rescheduled opening series against the Braves. Four remained out through the next series against the Dodgers.

Then, just as it appeared a healthy roster was coming together and turning the corner, four players got hurt and landed on the 10-day injured list in the span of 72 hours. Wander Suero strained an oblique muscle. Luis Avilán tore his elbow ligament. Stephen Strasburg developed shoulder inflammation. And Juan Soto strained his shoulder.

Oh, and have we mentioned the three games within a week in which the Nationals starting pitcher surrendered eight or more runs?

“We got delayed, and then a doubleheader on the second day,” reliever Daniel Hudson said. “Guys missing from the lineup and missing from the bullpen. Soto goes down with the injury yesterday. We’ve had a lot thrown at us the first couple weeks of the season.”

And they’ve emerged intact. Perhaps a little bruised, but hardly battered.

Schwarber-Rounds-Bases-Walkoff-Blue-Sidebar.jpgAfter a 1-5 start to the season, the Nationals have won six of their last 10. They’ve seen Patrick Corbin turn it around after a couple of awful starts. They’ve seen Josh Bell and Kyle Schwarber connect for their long-awaited first homers with the club. They’ve seen the rest of the lineup scratch and claw its way to enough runs to win some games. And they’ve seen the deepest bullpen they’ve had here in a while produce a collective 3.35 ERA and 1.081 WHIP (when you throw out Avilán’s disastrous inning in relief of a disastrous Strasburg start in St. Louis).

It’s far from perfect, but it’s on the right track.

“We’re starting to play better baseball; I definitely agree with that,” Scherzer said. “We’re starting to do the right things that it’s going to take to (win games). Winning with starting pitching. Winning with offense. Winning with baserunning. Winning with defense. Everything it takes to win, we’re starting to see that.”

It’s not an unfamiliar position for the Nationals to be in. As anyone who has paid even scant attention to them in recent years, they always seem to get off to a ragged start. But most notably in 2019, they toughed it out through a frustrating April and May and emerged far better for it in the end.

This current team still possesses that quality, players insist.

“Guys are battling, coming to the ballpark every day in a good mood, even if we lose the night before,” Hudson said. “We’ve had a couple of lopsided losses, and guys aren’t getting too down on themselves and come back the next day and play a really good ballgame. It just shows the character of this team.”

If only they didn’t feel like they needed to show that much character this early in the year yet again.

Since Davey Martinez replaced Dusty Baker as manager after the 2017 season, the Nationals have never opened their season with a winning month. They were 13-16 at the end of April 2018, then 12-16 at the end of April 2019, then 12-20 at the end of August 2020.

Wouldn’t it be nice not to have to feel like you’re constantly scrambling to keep the franchise afloat every April?

“We talk all the time about getting off to a good start, and then things happen that you can’t control,” Martinez said. “After every game, and every morning when I wake up, that’s the first thing I tell myself: Just control the controllables. You’ve got 26 guys on the roster. Do the best you can with those 26 guys. You know they’re going to give you effort, and that’s all I can ask from them.

“And just keep playing baseball. It’s a long season. It’s not like last year. Last year, it was imperative that you got off to a good start. We’ve got 162 games. If you look at our schedule, our first 40 games are going to be tough. I just tell myself: Focus on getting through the day, and then move on to the next day. That’s all I can think about.”

The Nationals have been doing a good job of that. After watching Strasburg get beaten up by the Cardinals, they watched Joe Ross come back the next day and toss a gem. After watching Corbin get shelled in the first game of the homestand, they watched Schwarber launch a walk-off homer for a 1-0 victory 24 hours later.

And after watching Joe Ross give up 10 runs Monday night and Soto land on the IL on Tuesday afternoon, the Nats bounced right back and won back-to-back games over the Cardinals.

Put it all together and you get a 7-9 record. It may not be the record the Nationals wanted when they broke camp at the end of spring training. But under the circumstances, it’s not a bad sign of positive things to come.

“I’d much prefer being 9-7, above .500,” Martinez said. “But you know what? Like I told them again tonight: Keep playing, keep grinding, go 1-0 every day. That’s who we are. Don’t change anything. Keep plugging away. We’re going to be fine.”

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