The reboot of the Washington Nationals began tonight with a 34-year-old journeyman on the mound, a 22-year-old superstar batting third, a major-league cleanup hitter batting behind him, and a bunch of other assorted parts surrounding them. Some are potential parts of the franchise’s future, some are not.
It may have left a majority in the crowd of 33,882 sad, angry, intrigued, maybe even excited for the possibilities in a few cases. But this is the new reality for an organization that won its first World Series championship only 21 months ago and spent the last decade expecting to contend for a title.
And when the Nationals emerged victorious, 4-3 over the equally rebuilding Cubs, those fans cheered as if the players who made it possible were named Max Scherzer, Trea Turner and Daniel Hudson, not Paolo Espino, Luis García and Gabe Klobosits.
At the end of a two-day stretch that saw the Nats trade away eight key veterans and declare in no uncertain terms their intention now to rebuild for the long-term over the short-term, the Friday night crowd on South Capitol Street seemed to enjoy the proceedings just fine. They stood and roared when Garcia caught Sergio Alcantara’s lineout to second to end the game, and if you didn’t know better you’d have thought this team was still in a pennant race.
“It’s awesome,” manager Davey Martinez said in a postgame Zoom session far more upbeat than his pregame one. “These fans, our fans, they’re tremendous. They showed tonight that they’re going to stick with us. And we’re going to do the best we can to go out there and put on a good show, and come out with a victory.”
Yes, there were reminders of the roster upheaval that took place earlier, never more so than in the form of Scherzer’s oversized blue-and-brown stare from the longstanding poster above the right field concourse. The three-time Cy Young Award winner may be on his way to L.A., but he’ll still be keeping a watchful eye over the proceedings here in D.C.
But there were also glimpses of the future, on and off the field.
There was García, the 21-year-old middle infielder who’s about to get a chance to play most every day the rest of the season, homering off Jake Arrieta to put the Nationals on the board in the bottom of the second.
There was Carter Kieboom, the 23-year-old third baseman who couldn’t seize the job out of spring training but now will get his chance to play at last, reaching base three times and scoring from first on Yadiel Hernandez’s sixth-inning single.
And there was Brady House, the 18-year-old recent first-round pick who signed for $5 million earlier today, being introduced on the scoreboard and sheepishly waving to the crowd, hoping he’s back here in full uniform a few years down the road.
“It means a lot to all of us,” García said, through interpreter Octavio Martinez, of the opportunity he and other young players will now get. “To stay positive, to do everything we can to help the team win, to show what we can do and continue the path that has been laid before us.”
Alongside those potential stars of tomorrow were big leaguers of today, still doing their thing to help ensure a victory.
Josh Bell, the 28-year-old first baseman who was acquired last winter to try to help the Nationals return to the postseason now, launched another right-handed homer, his fifth since the All-Star break.
Espino, the journeyman right-hander who improbably has become a key part of this season’s staff, tossed 5 1/3 innings of one-run ball on 76 pitches to lower his ERA to 3.08. Despite only finding out for sure minutes before 4 p.m. he would be starting because Jon Lester had been traded to the Cardinals moments before the deadline.
“It’s obviously a little difficult with all the missing pieces, our teammates, after the trade deadline,” Espino said. “But you’ve got to maintain yourself positive.”
All of that put the Nats in a position to win late, if a completely remade bullpen that now lacks Hudson and Brad Hand could close it out. Martinez’s selections to take over late-inning responsibilities? Ryne Harper for the seventh and the first out of the eighth, Klobosits (a 6-foot-7, 26-year-old, stirrups-wearing righty making his big league debut) to finish the eighth and Kyle Finnegan for the save in the ninth.
And when Finnegan finished it off, inducing a double play grounder from Matt Duffy before the final lineout to García, the crowd rose and cheered the guys in the navy blue jerseys, white pants and curly W caps. The names on the back may look a little different than they did the last time they saw a game here, but that didn’t seem to deter everyone from appreciating what the guys still wearing “Nationals” on the front of their jerseys did to win a ballgame.
“The crowd was awesome tonight, pitching there at the end of the game,” Finnegan said. “You definitely feel their presence. I get that leadoff hit and work the count to Duffy, and I’m saying to myself: ‘Come on: Ground ball, ground ball.’ And the stadium starts to get up, and boom, groundball double play. It’s an unbelievable feeling.”