Apocalypse now: Nationals' season is in ruins
In retrospect, that ugly 9-8 loss to the Padres in San Diego on July 8 probably marked the end of the Washington Nationals' chances for a berth in the 2021 postseason. They quickly went from being potential rivals of the National League's best teams (in the Western Division) to mere pretenders. In San Francisco, they were swept in three straight games by the Giants. On July 9, Paolo Espino had a short outing on the mound, while most of the offensive output was generated by rookie Tres Barrera, who batted in two runs. Final score: 5-3. The next day (Saturday), Jon Lester disappointed once again, and was replaced during the third inning. Newly acquired Alcides Escobar (traded by the Kansas City Royals) knocked in two runs, but the Nats lost by a lopsided 10-4. In the Sunday game, Erick Fedde had a decent outing (just three earned runs over five innings pitched), but the Nats' offense fell flat again as the home team won it, 3-1. Notable in that game was Starlin Castro's three hits in four at-bats; he was subsequently taken off the active roster after he was accused of domestic violence, and it is clear that he will not be returning to the team.
Any hope that the Nats might bounce back after the All-Star break (to be discussed later) were instantly crushed on Friday July 16, as they suffered the biggest defeat of the entire year. The Padres were visiting Washington D.C., but Erick Fedde was not at all ready for them. He lasted a little more than one inning, giving up six runs, and the bullpen was not ready to fill in for him, as they gave up an additional 18 runs during the remainder of the game. Juan Soto's two home runs were utterly meaningless, as was Gerardo Parra's one. [Final score: 24-8. ] Saturday night's game was suspended in the sixth inning due to a strange incident outside the stadium. Several gunshots were fired from cars driving down South Capitol Street, and when a wounded passerby staggered into the gate on the third base side, a mild panic erupted among some of the fans. Eventually fans were told to exit the stadium on the north and east sides, but the period of confusion seemed unduly long. When the game resumed on Sunday afternoon, the Padres added to their lead and ended up with a 10-4 victory. The Nationals finally ended their losing streak in the second game, as Max Scherzer had a solid 7-inning game, striking out eight more batters -- perhaps his last ever in a Nats uniform. Alcides Escobar and Juan Soto homered, and after Brad Hand blew the save in the top of the ninth inning, Escobar got the game-winning RBI in the bottom of the ninth to rescue what would have been a disgraceful loss, thereby avoiding another sweep. It ended the Nationals' six-game losing streak.
That marked a mini-revival, as the Nats won the next two games against the Miami Marlins. On Monday July 19 they totalled 18 runs, the most of the year thus far, thanks to home runs by Juan Soto (2), Josh Bell, Tres Barrera, Trea Turner, [and even the pitcher Jon Lester!] Lester finally had a superb day on the mound, going seven full innings without giving up a run. The Marlins scored one in the latter innings. On the 20th Paolo Espino likewise bounced back and got the win in a 5-3 victory for the Nats. But the Nats managed to lose the final game of the series in spite of a good outing by Erick Fedde. In the top of the tenth inning, the Marlins got two runs across and won the game, 3-1.
Next came a visit to Baltimore, where the lowly Orioles showed more spunk than might be expected. Patrick Corbin had a lousy day, giving up four earned runs and one unearned run, while all the Nats could manage was a solo home run by Josh Bell. Final score: 6-1. On Saturday Juan Soto homered and Trea Turner got two RBIs, while Jon Lester had an OK day, giving up three runs. The Orioles won that one, 5-3. On Sunday Paolo Espino did likewise, and a sixth inning three-run home run by Ryan Zimmerman put the Nats ahead, with Espino in line to get the win. But in the bottom of the ninth inning, closing pitcher Brad Hand fell apart, and the Orioles scored twice to win the game 5-4 and thus complete the sweep. Things were going from very bad to worse...
Last night's game in Philadelphia against the Phillies was even worse: Thanks to an early four-run rally, the Nats had a 5-3 lead going into the bottom of the ninth inning, whereupon closing pitcher Brad Hand plunked the first batter, got an out, gave up a walk to Bryce Harper, and then gave up a walk-off home run to Andrew McCutcheon. And the fans went wild! Final score: Phillies 6, Nats. 5.
That was the final straw. All hope for bouncing back and salvaging the 2021 season has been lost.
Trading deadline approaches
Since the Nationals are essentially out of the race for the postseason, there is no longer any point in speculating who they might acquire in trades by the deadline this coming Saturday night. (NOTE: Unlike recent years, there will be no waiver exceptions for the month of August.) Quite the contrary, General Manager Mike Rizzo has indicated that all players are negotiable for trades, except Juan Soto. Max Scherzer will almost certainly get his 3,000th career strikeout wearing the uniform of a different team, but no one doubts that when he is inducted into the Hall of Fame it will be as a National. I would have thought that keeping Trea Turner and Kyle Schwarber ought to be a bigger priority, but it is clear that [the owners of] the Nationals have decided to embark upon a full-blown franchise rebuilding effort, from the bottom up. That means restocking the depleted minor league rosters, and pretty much forgetting about contending for at least the next couple years. With one of the weakest farm systems in the major leagues right now, the Nationals' top priority must be to rebuild the team's long-term foundations in the minor league rosters. What an incredible, sad turnaround for a franchise that was until recently so successful and so proud.