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Make or Break Time: Washington Nationals

May 21, 2018; Washington, DC, USA; Washington Nationals left fielder Juan Soto (22) hits a three run home run during the second inning against the San Diego Padres at Nationals Park. Mandatory Credit: Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports ORG XMIT: USATSI-375364 ORIG FILE ID: 20180521_twg_au3_001.jpg

It wasn’t supposed to be like this for Washington.

It was supposed to be win the NL East and win 100 games for it with their starting pitching of Max Scherzer,  Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Tanner Roark, and Jeremy Hellickson.  They were supposed to win 100 games with the likes of Bryce Harper, Ryan Zimmerman, Anthony Rendon, and Trea Turner on offense with Daniel Murphy coming back a little later than normal because of his microfracture surgery.  They were supposed to win 100 games because the bullpen wasn’t as bad as it was in years past with Sean Doolittle, Ryan Madson, and Brandon Kintzler.  They were supposed to win 100 games with the brain-trust of Dave Martinez, who replaced Dusty Baker because Martinez was new age and also a Joe Maddon disciple from 2008-2017 (both in Tampa Bay & Chicago).  They were supposed to win 100 games because the NL East had three teams rebuilding (Braves, Phillies, Marlins) and a fourth team stuck in neutral (Mets).

So how did it get somewhere like this?

The starting pitching has been fine.  Scherzer has been dealing and is probably in line for his third straight Cy Young.  But Strasburg is hurt, again.  Gonzalez has times of inconsistency.  Roark has been hard to watch and while Hellickson has been a very pleasant surprise, he’s missed a few starts due to injury.

Bryce

The hitting has stung.  Despite Harper’s hot stretch to start the year, he’s fallen off a cliff (despite 21 HR so far this season), as his average is under .220 while he’s on pace to strike out almost 160 times this year, on  a contract year where he is looking for $400 million.  Zimmerman has been hurt (again) and when he has been in the lineup hasn’t done much.  Turner has just done “okay” while Rendon has held his own.  Of course, the one guy that has completely kept them from being in the tank has been rookie sensation Juan Soto, who is hitting over .300 and has an OPS well over .900.  Had it not been for Soto, who knows where the Nationals would be now.

The bullpen is back to being the bullpen, at least in some aspects of both Madson and Kintzler underachieving so far (both have ERA’s over 4 and WHIP average around 1.40).  It was enough however for the Nationals to trade for Royals closer Kelvin Herrera, though his early start with Washington hasn’t been a good one (3 ER in 6.2 IP as opposed to 3 ER in 25.2 IP in Kansas City before the trade).

Dave

And Dave Martinez looks like he’s in over his head.

Adding onto it, the Braves and Phillies have been winning.  A lot.  And are ahead of the Nationals.  Currently, the Nationals are 7 back of Atlanta for first in the NL East and 5.5 games behind Philadelphia for second.

And here’s the stunner of it all: Washington is 42-43 right now.  1 under .500 for a roster expected to win at least 95 games and be built for a World Series.

Again, it wasn’t supposed to be like this.

Max Scherzer

Washington went 42-43 after a 3-game sweep by the Red Sox where they were outplayed in nearly every aspect (pitching, hitting, bullpen, managing, etc.) and though the game was in Washington it felt like Boston fans packed it in Nationals Park.  Anyway, the sweep triggered the famed players-only meeting where it has been reported Max Scherzer yelled at pretty much everybody in the locker room for not living up to their potential.  To be fair, Scherzer’s right.  They haven’t.  And given the fact that the Nationals have lost 4 of their last 5 outings for Scherzer, he is obvious frustrated as well.

The players-only meeting comes at a unique time besides the 1 game under .500 and being 7 out.  The Nationals schedule up until the All-Star Break has Miami at home for four games, then 3 at Pittsburgh and 4 at the Mets.  This stretch, the Nationals don’t need to go 6-5.  They don’t need to go 7-4.  But they need to win 8 or more games. It’s hard, but not unrealistic.

To me, even in this nice stretch for Washington since 2012 it always has that feel or that vibe that their talent, notably because of having Harper in the lineup, will carry them through and that each year if they don’t get it, the window is still wide open for next year and we see this team go through the motions again.  Some point even to Harper thinking that one of the reasons why he hasn’t fully lived up to his potential and why he isn’t doing what Mike Trout is doing is because he’s relying too much on his talent and not enough of utilizing what he can do.  I don’t buy that, but sometimes it does look like his head is elsewhere, especially when he is struggling.

The fortunate part for the Nationals to me was that Max Scherzer was the RIGHT GUY to speak up and out to the teammates.  Zimmerman, Harper, Rendon, Turner, Strasburg, etc. are all Nationals products.  Scherzer came into his own in Detroit after he got traded there in 2009.  He’s seen firsthand of a team with talent all over the place fail to win a world championship (and I do compare the Nationals teams of the last few years to those Tigers teams from 2011-2014 where they should have won 100 and hold a world championship).

People snicker about players-only meetings and how they don’t work and such.  However, sometimes it is needed and I think the Nationals needed it.  They are expecting to be there at the end, but it has the vibe that they are JUST expecting it and having it handed to them.  Well, no world championship has been given ever just because a team is talented.  No division title has ever been handed to a team because they had talent alone.

These next 11 games are huge for the Nationals.  They should be at the worst 7-4 in this run.  But if they fall the other way go 5-6 or 4-7, we may see a team change their mode from buying to selling.  And that means maybe, just maybe, the biggest trade target comes into play in the name of Bryce Harper.  But let’s see how these 11 games first play out before we have any talk of that.

-Fan in the Obstructed Seat

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