Column: Hindsight might be 93-69 for Nationals

The Washington Nationals will be handing out World Series rings on Sunday in a virtual ceremony.

It’s almost fitting, as that’s when the surge up the standings began for a 19-31 team that would finish 93-69 before continuing its magical march through October.

And while the team was confident they would turn things around eventually, it’s more than reasonable for those covering the team or rooting them on from the cheap seats (and not-so-cheap suites) at Nationals Park to have given up on the hometown team.

I’ve been covering the Nationals’ home games on a regular basis the last six seasons, anchoring afternoon sportscasts from the ballpark before providing updates during the game that evening.

I’ve dealt with Game Five losses and late-summer meltdowns, witnessed hot bats become frigid in October and see untimely injuries become costly in the NLDS.

But I never had to deal with a team 10 games under .500 in DC — and that’s exactly what I had last May.

Due to injuries in the lineup and ineffectiveness in the bullpen, the team that had won four division titles in seven years was on pace to lose 100 games after getting swept in a four-game series by the New York Mets on May 23, 2019.

Since 2015, I’ve written a weekly “Nats Notebook” that explores the highs and lows, the big picture and minutiae.

These are excerpts from last year’s “Nats Notebook” on the way to Memorial Day.

They provide a bit of a road map, as well as highlight who was doing well and who wasn’t on a week-by-week basis.

Enjoy with retroactive comments in italics.

Because while sometimes hindsight is more than just 20-20, it turns out to be 93-69.


April 2, 2019 — Too early for a freakout?

The calendar reads “2019” … but for many the first weekend of this season felt like last year’s 82-80 journey to nowhere.

From stranding runners to bad base running to questionable bullpen use to wasting a solid Max Scherzer start, the season opener had it all.

Saturday’s loss doubled down on all of that with a subpar Stephen Strasburg start followed by a bad bullpen outing.

Thank goodness Trea Turner hit a walkoff home run in Sunday’s win, otherwise we’d have a winless last place team facing first place Philadelphia.

Along with a familiar face. Please tell me it’s only April …

Last week’s heroes — Max Scherzer strikes out 12 while allowing two hits over 7.2 innings and Sean Doolittle K’s a pair, while tossing 1.2 scoreless in Sunday’s sweep-averting win.

Trea Turner bats .385 with two homers while Victor Robles hits .455.

Last week’s humbled Robles also had an error in Saturday’s loss and his base running blunder helped keep the Nats off the board in the season opener.

But at least he’s hitting Brian Dozier began the year 0-for-10 while Juan Soto has seven strikeouts in his 12 at bats.

Trevor Rosenthal has allowed five runs while not recording an out over two appearances.

***

Rosenthal would live in the land of infinity before finally recording an out in his fifth appearance April 10, 2019. This was the same time that Orioles slugger Chris Davis was oh-for-the-season.

I maintain that if they faced each other during this stretch, the universe would have imploded.


April 8, 2019 — One bad bullpen

Beware the Bad Bullpen.

Shaky setup men and closers in crisis are the perfect way to undo five-plus solid innings of work from your rotation.

Eight games into the season, the Nats bullpen ranks last in the majors with an ERA of 10.80.

While last week one was reminded of the 2018 season’s sloppy base running and bad defense, this week one recalls how bad the bullpen was during the first half of the 2017 season.

And this is April — with multiple off-days early in the season.

Can this bullpen get itself together before it’s too late?

Last week’s heroes Anthony Rendon hit .474 with 4 homers and 7 RBI, while Ryan Zimmerman drove in 5 runs.

Stephen Strasburg tossed 6.2 scoreless innings to start their series against the Mets, Sean Doolittle threw 2.2 scoreless frames over three outings and Max Scherzer tallied 16 strikeouts over 11.1 innings.

Max also gave himself a lead for the first time all year by driving in a run Saturday.

Last week’s humbled Trevor Rosenthal remains in the land of infinity, allowing two more earned runs while walking three more over two games.

Joe Ross in his 2019 debut allowed a three-run homer while getting one out Sunday.

For those doing the math, that equates to an earned run average of 81.00. Tony Sipp’s ERA for the week was a robust 27.00, while Matt Grace and Wander Suero also have double-digit ERA’s.

At the plate, Victor Robles and Brian Dozier are both hitting .133 to start the season.

While neither is expected to carry this team offensively, the loss of Trea Turner to a broken finger for the next 4-8 weeks makes every out sting a little more.

***

Bryce Harper’s return to Nationals Park was less than ideal for the team he left, as the former face of the franchise went 5-for-10 with 3 RBI in his first series back.

Throw in losing offensive sparkplug Trea Turner, and early April was not awesome in D.C.


April 15, 2019 — Whirlwind world

What a week it was.

From Virginia winning a first-ever men’s college basketball National Championship (Kippy & Buffy are celebrating with a bottle of 2009 Chateau Lynch-Bages) to the Capitals taking a 2-0 first round playoff series lead over Carolina to Tiger Woods winning the Masters to Game of Thrones’ final season premiering, there’s been a lot to experience.

Amid all of that the Nationals went 3-3 to remain .500 on the season.

One series win that could have gone the other way followed by the exact opposite.

But who’s watching?

Last week’s heroes Howie Kendrick in his return to the roster hit 7-of-11 with two homers and four RBI.

They missed the Swiss army knife a ton last year.

Anthony Rendon hit .360 while driving in eight runs. Adam Eaton scored a team-high seven runs.

Patrick Corbin struck out 11 over seven innings in his only outing while Kyle Barraclough (1.2 scoreless innings) and Sean Doolittle (3.2 scoreless) kept the lid on things.

Trevor Rosenthal, after living in the land of infinity, notched his first out of the season.

Last week’s humbled Ryan Zimmerman hit .167 while Wilmer Difo batted .143.

Stephen Strasburg was touched up for six earned runs over four innings of work.

Tony Sipp allowed two runs in one inning.

***

Amazing how sports works out.

The Cavaliers trailed in every game during their NCAA title run and needed crazy rallies to get to overtime in the Regional Finals and Championship Game.

And that doesn’t include the three free throws with 0.6 seconds left against Auburn in the National Semifinals.

But just as the Cavs go up, the Caps come down as they’d lose four of five to end their title defense on a cold April night.


April 22, 2019 — Sunburned

So much for getting fat on the last place Miami Marlins.

The Nats visited the one team in the NL East that could be accused of not really trying in 2019 and lost two of three.

And now once again the team finds itself at .500; they were 3-3, 4-4, 5-5, 6-6, 7-7, 8-8, 9-9 and now the club many thought would fight for the NL East is 10-10.

Granted, not having Trea Turner is a major blow to the offense and the bullpen is only beginning to put together outs consistently.

But the longer this team stays in second gear, the longer one feels they’re going to be second-tier.

Last week’s heroes — Adam Eaton hit .364 while Matt Adams batted .333 with two homers and six RBI.

Ryan Zimmerman homered twice in Sunday’s win over Miami.

Patrick Corbin struck out nine over seven innings in his only start while Stephen Strasburg K’d 11 while tossing eight scoreless innings in Sunday’s win at the Marlins.

Relievers Kyle Barraclough pitched three scoreless outings while Tony Sipp tossed two scoreless frames over three appearances.

Last week’s humbled — Max Scherzer had a rare rough outing, coughing up six runs over 5.1 innings at Miami.

Austen Williams allowed two homers in two outings and has an ERA of 162.

Yes, it’s a very small sample size but … ouch.

Juan Soto did walk five times last week but hit .200 primarily batting third and fourth.

***

There’s a Seinfeld episode where “everything evens out” for Jerry, and that’s what the early season felt like for the Nats.

Meanwhile the rogues gallery of relievers gave nobody long-term confidence in the bullpen that would eventually rank 29th in the majors.


April 29, 2019 — The future is wow

On the week that the NFL took center stage with its Draft Party Celebration Extravaganza, it was only fitting that the Nats looked to their youngest players in Sunday’s rally from six runs down to beat San Diego in extra innings.

The 7-6 win in 10 innings may have been won by Matt Adams’ walk-off homer, but Carter Kieboom, Juan Soto and Victor Robles helped force extras with home runs of their own.

It’s the first time in Major League history that a trio of teammates under the age of 22 homered in the same game.

And while there are plenty of issues facing this team at this time, one can at least look to the next generation making their mark now.

Last week’s heroes — Carter Kieboom provided an instant spark, homering in his first career game Friday night before going yard Sunday.

Juan Soto hit .308 and led the team with 8 RBI while Matt Adams batted .333 and had the sweep-averting homer against the Padres.

Erick Fedde tossed four scoreless innings after getting called up from the minors while Max Scherzer struck out 10 to move past the 2,500 plateau.

Last week’s humbled — Trevor Rosenthal had one rough outing against Colorado: he threw three wild pitches and hit a batter while allowing three runs.

Jeremy Hellickson allowed 10 earned runs over eight innings, while Wander Suero went 0-2 with an ERA of 16.88.

Adam Eaton hit .217 while Victor Robles batted .214 with one walk and eight strikeouts.

Not what you dream about atop the batting order.

***

I had a chance to interview both Carter Kieboom and Erick Fedde this past February at Spring Training.

Fedde was fighting for the fifth spot in the rotation and while his extra year of options was originally going to keep him in the minors an expanded roster this summer may play into his favor.

Conversely, Kieboom’s lack of regular reps the last two months could seriously stunt was going to be his growth into the starting role at third base.


May 6, 2019 — Still trying to take off

Add Juan Soto to the growing Nats’ Injured List.

And Matt Adams.

And (potentially) Michael A. Taylor.

And, for a few hours, the teams charter plane before it left Philadelphia for Milwaukee

Not to mention their pitching coach: sayonara Doug Lilliquist, welcome Paul Menhart.

The Nats aren’t just minus their opening day #2 through #5 hitters, but they’re also without their best bat off the bench (who had been forced into a starting role) and potentially their best defensive outfielder (we await the moment when Taylor is put on the IL).

Not helpful in the early season when one has yet to find itself.

The team that had issues getting away from .500 (nine times in April) is now taking serious water (losses in 11 of their last 16 games).

And their gauntlet of playoff teams from last year continues with trips to Milwaukee and the Los Angeles Dodgers.

About that Delay — during a season where the team was expected to contend is five games under .500 in early May, it’s only fitting that the team flight had trouble taking off as well Sunday.

The Nats boarded their team charter at 6:30 p.m. but mechanical issues kept them on the tarmac for eight hours.

They finally deplaned at 3 a.m. (wondering when the peanuts ran out) and went back to their hotel before flying later in the morning.

On a trip where there are no off-days, this was beyond not ideal.

Fire up the espresso machine in the visitor’s clubhouse.

Last week’s heroes — Kurt Suzuki hit .462 with three homers and five RBI while Howie Kendrick hit .348.

Sean Doolittle notched a pair saves while tossing 2.1 scoreless innings and Kyle Barraclough threw three scoreless frames over three appearances.

Stephen Strasburg reached the 1,500 strikeout milestone by whiffing nine over 6.2 innings in a sweep-averting victory against St. Louis.

Last week’s humbled — Joe Ross allowed seven earned runs over 0.2 innings (94.50 ERA for those without calculators) while Matt Grace posted a 10.38 ERA.

Carter Kieboom suddenly looked like a rookie while hitting 2-for-23 while Michael A. Taylor went 0-12 with five strikeouts before injuring his wrist.

***

The flight delay was going to be one of those things that becomes symbolic of a lost season.

The change of a pitching coach seemed to make sense, as a staff that boasted quite a bit of talent ended April with the fourth-highest ERA in the NL.


May 13, 2019 — Wandering out west

The Nats’ 10-game road trip is now in their rearview mirror.

The 3-7 finish was less than ideal but not as disastrous as it could have been.

From getting swept in Milwaukee to getting shut out twice in Los Angeles.

From a comedy of errors in the field against the Brewers to a silent outing by the bats in almost getting no-hit by the Dodgers.

This team returns to D.C. a little healthier (Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto are both back) but far from full-strength.

And just as far from successful: they’ve not won consecutive games since April 18 and have had just a pair of two-game winning streaks.

Things won’t get any easier as they face fellow NL East contender New York and the NL East-leading Cubs.

Can things get turned around by Memorial Day?

Last week’s heroes — Patrick Corbin ended the team’s four game losing streak by tossing seven scoreless innings while Max Scherzer struck out 17 over two starts, winning for the first time in over a month.

Newcomer Gerardo Parra hit a grand slam in Saturday night’s win while ending a no-hit bid by the Dodgers’ Hyun-Jin Ryu Sunday afternoon.

Howie Kendrick’s homer helped the Nats snap the slide, and he led the team with seven RBI last week.

Last week’s humbled — Anthony Rendon came off the injured list and hit .136 with seven strikeouts.

He’s not alone, as none of the regulars hit over .250 last week.

The catching combination of Yan Gomes and Kurt Suzuki went 1-for-25 with 10 strikeouts.

Jeremy Hellickson allowed six runs over four innings of work while Kyle Barraclough and Matt Grace each posted a 13.50 ERA.

That of course pales in comparison to Dan Jennings’ 40.50 blemish.

***

Hello Gerardo Parra!

He was hitting .198 for the Giants when the Nats picked him up, and what an acquisition for the Nats.

Even with the “Baby Shark” earworm.


May 20, 2019 — May-laise

Another week, another slate of games where the Nationals were alternately inspiring and frustrating.

The team that started slow (12-16 on April 30, 2019) is now 7-11 in May, has lost nine of 15 series (with two splits in the mix) and has dropped 13 of 15 series openers.

After winning their first series in almost a month, the Nats went out and turned a 5-4 game in the eighth inning against the Cubs into a 14-6 nightmare.

With Miami’s sweep over the weekend of the Mets, the Nats are now the only team in the majors without a three game-winning streak.

And there’s no possible way this team will be over .500 on Memorial Day.

Could there be a crisis of confidence in D. C.?

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