Nats Notebook: Sinking into the cellar

When the Washington Nationals finished in last place of the NL East last year, it was written off by some (myself included) as a “hiccup” as well as a “small sample size.”

A 60-game regular season in a pandemic with no fans in the stands and a top veteran opting out due to COVID-19 concerns will do that. But the 2021 slide from contender (40-38 and two games back) on July 1, to pretender (48-56 and parting with eight players for prospects) on July 31 sets up an August full of the things nightmares are made of.

Since winning Aug. 1 in walk-off fashion against the Chicago Cubs, the Nats have lost 12 of 13 to slide into last place of the division they won four times from 2012 to 2018. At 50-68, the team is at least 15 games under .500 for the first time since 2010 and the “elimination countdown” clock is wound up with the “tragic number” (losses plus wins by the first place team), now 33.

Brace yourself.

Out again: One of my 21 questions for 2021 to start the season dealt with the return of Joe Ross to the rotation after opting out of 2020. Unfortunately, the right-hander’s year (5-9 with a 4.17 ERA) took a major detour with a partially-torn UCL in his right elbow — the same one that had Tommy John surgery four years ago. He joins the likes of Stephen Strasburg on the shelf and now wonders what is next.

Digesting the Division: Atlanta (62-56) swoops into first, thanks to their sweep of Washington while Philadelphia (61-57) has lost four of six since their eight-game winning streak (subsidized by the Nationals) ended. There’s been talk of Bryce Harper being an MVP candidate, and while the outfielder owns the best OPS on the National League (. 981), he ranks second on his own team in homers and fourth on the Phillies in RBI. If you want an MVP candidate, check out the Braves duo of Ozzie Albies (22 HR and 80 RBI) as well as shortstop Dansby Swanson (24 and 70). The New York Mets (59-58) may rank 29th in runs scored but got the necessary hits when they swept the Nats at Citi Field last week. And while Miami (51-67) may be focused on 2024, four straight wins has them looking down the standings at Washington.

O’s Woes: The Baltimore Orioles have dropped 11 straight and are 38-78. Much was made this past week about Washington being 15 games under .500 for the first time since 2010, while the O’s are now 40 games under .500 and are in danger of losing 100 games for the third straight 162-game season (they’d need a 25-21 finishing kick). The team also announced that Chris Davis was retiring. The slugger twice led the AL in homers while helping the Orioles to the playoffs three times in a five-year span. But he also signed a monster deal after the 2015 season that became unmovable given his decline at the plate a few years later (54 hitless at bats to begin the 2019 season) and is an example that there are no sure things in free agency.

I Ain’t Missing You At All: Former Nationals with their new teams have produced a mixed bag since moving on, but at least once every five days, Washington fans get a gut-punch in the form of a Max Scherzer start with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Scherzer struck out six over 3.1 innings against Philadelphia before the rain delay ended his Tuesday start before fanning seven over 6 frames Sunday night against the Mets. Trea Turner wrapped up the week by going 3-4 with a stolen base and three runs scored Sunday night, but his exploits with his new club include that sweet slide into home that looked choreographed. In Oakland, Yan Gomes is hitting .250 with 2 homers and 8 RBI while Josh Harrison is batting .296 for the A’s. Kyle Schwarber is finally in Boston’s lineup (walking twice and scoring twice against the Orioles in his debut). On the mound, Jon Lester is 1-1 with a 6.75 ERA since being traded to St. Louis while Brad Hand is 0-1 after allowing 4 runs (2 earned) over 5.1 innings for Toronto. Daniel Hudson has appeared in two games for San Diego, allowing one run in one complete inning pitched. He’s also wearing number 18 in his new digs (after sporting #44 in DC), the same number assigned to Schwarber in Boston.

Last Week’s Heroes: Thank goodness for Juan Soto. The face of the future hit .400 with a homer and 4 RBI. Victor Robles batted .308 with a team-high 5 runs scored from the leadoff spot, although he didn’t draw a walk in six games played. Josiah Gray allowed 3 runs over 6 innings in his lone start while Andres Machado appeared in 4 innings over 3 games while allowing one earned run. Off the field, the duo of Chelsea Janes and Jesse Dougherty produced one heck of a piece for the Sunday Washington Post on what went down during the trading deadline week. Good reading, although we recommend you be seated while digesting the end of an era.

Last Week’s Humbled: Six losses in six games is going to produce plenty of candidates, beginning with Patrick Corbin allowing 6 earned runs over 4.2 innings pitched. Javy Guerra, Paolo Espino, Sean Nolan and Tanner Rainey also posted double-digit ERA weeks. At the plate Josh Bell (. 105 over 19 at bats) and Alcides Escobar (. 176) endured less than ideal stretches.

Game to Watch: Wednesday afternoon, the Nationals wrap up a homestand by hosting Toronto: Josiah Gray gets the start against the Blue Jays. The 23-year old has shown signs of promise and in a season where Scherzer is traded, Strasburg and Ross are injured, Corbin is ineffective and Erick Fedde is inconsistent, Gray’s outings are the ones we look forward to the most.

Game to Miss: Saturday, the Nationals pitch Corbin (6-12, 6.04) pitches against Milwaukee. He’s 2-6 with a 4.94 ERA lifetime against the Brewers, and those numbers are from his good seasons. It’s also getting deep into August, meaning you’re not going to have many summer Saturdays left with college football also on the horizon. It’s also my buddy Cutter’s last waitering shift at the steakhouse he’s worked at for 20 years, so I’m going to be focused on Cajun rib-eyes and creamed spinach instead of balls and strikes.

Dave Preston

Dave has been in the D.C. area for 10 years and in addition to working at WTOP since 2002 has also been on the air at Westwood One/CBS Radio as well as Red Zebra Broadcasting (Redskins Network).

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