Down and out—but still looking up

Juan Soto and the Nationals hope to kick up their heels from 2020 deflation to 2021 redemption and beyond. Is it false hope?

Don’t look now, but baseball is about to wrap its twentieth season without a repeat World Series champion. What’s sadder about it is that last year’s world champions were so damn much fun but spent this year proving that no good deed goes unpunished.

Lots of teams get battered during any season, never mind truncated ones, but the Washington Nationals passed that practically before this one settled in through its early shakes, rattles, and COVID-19 rolls.

Until Daniel Hudson struck Michael Brantley out swinging on a full count, Washington hadn’t had a major league World Series champion since the Coolidge Administration or any kind of world champion since the final Negro Leagues World Series—during the Berlin Airlift.

Now the Nats have gone from baseball’s best between 23 May 2019 and the last men standing in the World Series toward the second-worst winning percentage ever for a defending Series winner. That was last year: They opened 19-31 and closed with the keys to the Promised Land. This was this year: They opened 19-31 and head for a closing with the keys to the tunnels beneath the sewers under the basement.

The worst, in case you wondered, were the 1998 Florida Marlins. (.333.) The team the Nats are about to push to one side in second place? The 2014 Boston Red Sox. (.438.) This is a very dubious elite club for which to aim at the top of the dubious the heap. NBC Sports Washington’s Chase Hughes reminds us that only 14.9 percent out of all 114 World Series winners had losing records. If you remove this year’s Nats from the picture, the dishonour roll looks thus:

1998 Marlins—.333.
2014 Red Sox—.438.
1991 Cincinnati Reds—.457.
1918 Chicago White Sox—.460.
1932 St. Louis Cardinals—.468.
Tie: 1986 Kansas City Royals; 2013 San Francisco Giants—.469.
1967 Baltimore Orioles—.472.
2003 Anaheim Angels—.475.
1994 Toronto Blue Jays—.478.
2007 St. Louis Cardinals—.481.

The Nats woke up this morning at .411. The good news, if you want to call it that: They get to finish this Alfred Hitchcock Presents Quiet, Please: The Inner Sanctum of the Outer Limits of the Twilight Zone of a season with four games against the New York Mess. (Er, Mets.) Who were supposed to be in the thick of this season’s races with or without the pandemic but had one thing in common with their comic 1962 ancestors: they never had a winning streak bigger than two games.

Assume for argument and humour’s sake that the Mets iron up and sweep the Nats to put paid to a season the Nats and the Mets would each love nothing more than to forget. Such a sweep would leave the Nats with a .383 winning percentage. Not quite enough to knock the Marlins off the highest of those low perches, but only the second defending World Champion to have a sub-.400 winning percentage trying to defend the title.

It’s not that the Nats lack for any remaining pride. Taking three out of four this week from even this year’s Philadelphia Phillies and especially their arsonic bullpen, including a doubleheader sweep Tuesday, shows they’ve got plenty enough of that left.

Maybe they don’t let themselves stay demoralised by the 12-3 smothering the Phillies dropped on them Wednesday night. Including and especially by old friend Bryce Harper—who’s been silly enough to play through back issues this year, and didn’t the Nats used to reach for the whiskey bottles over Harper trying to play through injuries when he wore their silks, too?— hitting a pair out on a night the Phillies sent five into the barren seats.

It’s what they didn’t have that picked these Nats up by the back of their necks and threw them downstairs this year. Last season, and especially last October, Sean Doolittle, Adam Eaton, Howie Kendrick, Tanner Rainey, and especially Stephen Strasburg owned numerous postseason conversations. This season they’ve owned too-choice seats on the injured list.

Last year, they had Anthony Rendon. Last winter, they decided (maybe foolishly, maybe not) that they couldn’t afford to keep both Rendon and Strasburg, and let Rendon walk into the Los Angeles Angels’ free agency arms—where, as of this morning, he leads the American League in on-base percentage.

The Nats thought signing Starlin Castro would ease that pain. Castro and his right wrist hit the IL in mid-August after he broke it on a diving play at second base. The Nats also didn’t expect that only three players would play up to even minimum expectations while the rest of the roster got injured, played at barely replacement-level, or just plain collapsed.

The three are Juan Soto, Trea Turner, and Luis Garcia. The third of that group is a rookie. The first is the young man who shook off what he still believes a false-positive COVID test to sport a 1.190 OPS as of Thursday morning and a real batting average (RBA: total bases + walks + intentional walks + sacrifice flies + hit by pitches, divided by total plate appearances) of .830.

It’s even more of a shame that this truncated season’s Nats deflated so profoundly. A performance like Soto’s over a full season might have “Most Valuable Player” stamped on the papers without that deflation.

Perspective: Atlanta’s Freddie Freeman, the presumptive MVP this season, has an RBA 101 points lower than Soto’s. (.729.) The Yankees’ D.J. LeMahieu, who leads the American League “batting race” as Soto does the National League’s, has a .635 RBA. Tim Anderson, second in the AL “batting race”: .596 RBA. Turner, who’s third in the NL “batting race”: .624 RBA.

The Nats also didn’t anticipate Max Scherzer and Patrick Corbin being only human this year, pandemic or no pandemic, disrupted spring training and bizarro summer camp or no disrupted spring training and bizarro summer camp. Hands up to everyone who expected the pair would combine for a 4.20 ERA and 3.59 fielding-independent pitching. Neither did they. Neither did I.

Nobody thought their up-and-comers would shrink when handed their opportunities to come forth and be counted in. Nobody thought so many veterans would look more ancient than merely veteran. And nobody thought the Lerner ownership would wait as long as they did to hand general manager Mike Rizzo his very hard-earned due of a contract extension.

But they still don’t have manager Dave Martinez’s situation resolved. Rizzo’s promised to sign Martinez to a long-term deal to keep him on the Nats’ bridge.The Lerners should at least think about atoning for keeping Rizzo in too-long-limbo and ordering Rizzo to get Martinez’s deal done the sooner the better.

Reality check: The Nats’ morale probably wasn’t helped by Rizzo’s long-enough lame duck status before he finally got his extension, and it probably isn’t helped by Martinez’s lack of new or at least extended deal. It’s no fun when two men you respect and admire and forgive their occasional hiccups and mishaps have to lead you through a season phantasmagoric going in with question marks instead of security on their heads.

They know Rizzo worked his tail off a very long time to make them winners and finally world champions, and they withstood Rizzo’s occasional stumbles on behalf of the bigger picture. They know Martinez didn’t let that 19-31 opening last year put premature paid to that season and bought into his “It’s a beautiful day, let’s win one” philosophy without waiting for it to go on sale.

They know this year’s an aberration. They hope.

“What I do like is our potential for 2021,” Martinez told reporters Wednesday. “I’ll say it again: Our starting pitching, the horses are coming back. The back end of our bullpen is shaped up and those guys will be fresh and ready to go. We have some really young talent; we’ve got some other young talent that hopefully we’ll see in spring training.”

All they have to do is a very mild re-tooling. (Six Nats either face free agency or option rejection, they’re not really keys to the future, and letting them go or just keeping one leaves room to sign, oh, a solid fourth starter, a decent bat, maybe even a bullpen fortifier.) Also, avoid the injury list and pray that 2021 will be a normal spring training and season.

Not to mention reminding themselves that World Series winners since 1995 also tend to get back to the postseason two years after slipping the rings onto their fingers. Those 2019 memories are eternal. But the Nats don’t have to think they’ll end up becoming outliers, either.

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