While the so-called “first-half” hasn’t gone the way anyone in Washington probably wanted it to, no one with the Nationals is giving up hope of a second-half run to their third straight NL East title, though they’ve put themselves in a tough spot with 66 games left on the 2018 schedule once play resumes next Friday.
Going into the All-Star Break, the Nationals are 48-48, 5.5 games back in the division they have won in four of the last six seasons and ran away with in 2017, finishing 20 ahead of the second-place Miami Marlins.
This time it’s going to be a chase, which a number of Nationals have said might not be a bad thing.
“I honestly think that it might be good for us,” Ryan Zimmerman told reporters as he got ready to go out on a rehab assignment over the All-Star Break.
“The last few times we’ve won the division, by now we have a double-digit lead, and I think we’ve clinched the first or second of week of September ... so then you get into that predicament where you don’t know if you want to play every day or if you want to play a couple days and take a day off, and then even in the games you are playing, you obviously play hard every day — I’ve never gone out there and not played hard — but when you’ve already accomplished your regular season goal — and don’t get me wrong I would take that every single year — I’m not complaining about it — but I think it could be good for us.
“It could let us know what we’re really made of and hopefully if we can come back after the break and maybe make a little run we’ll be kind of going into the playoffs on an uphill instead of kind of trying to hold that intensity that we had and didn’t really have to use for two or three weeks.”
“With that being said, like I said before,” he qualified, “I’ll take it any way I can get it, but I’ve also, like I’ve said before you’ve got to look at things positively, I’m not going to sit here and pout about us playing bad and being hurt, I think if you look at it that way — it gives us a goal to shoot for and something to come out of the Break ready to go.”
“From college to professional sports to high school it doesn’t matter,” Nats’ catcher Spencer Kieboom said, “... it’s about making it to the playoffs, it’s not about how you got there, once you’re in you’re in and when you’re in then it’s just about winning those games, winning the best of five, winning the best of seven. So, to me, this is my first real experience chasing it, that’s how I look at it, and I mean I think that’s how everyone else looks at it too.”
While they’re chasing it, however, Matt Wieters, said, the Nationals have to remain focused on the task at hand. It’s clichéd wisdom of course, but no less true.
“Playing them one game at a time,” the veteran backstop said. “We can’t worry about too long ahead or too far behind, you’ve got to play it one game at a time and that’s how you end up stacking wins on there and you look back and the season is over and say that’s where it turned around, but you can’t worry about the end of the season you’ve got to play right now.”
Zimmerman was asked if there was additional pressure to win now with a number of players on the current roster likely to be wearing different uniforms in 2018.
“Fortunately I think we have pressure every year now, which is a good thing,” Zimmerman responded, “because we’ve been good and people expect us to win.
“As far as the window or whatever people call it — obviously [Bryce Harper] — who knows what’s going to happen with him. I think it’s [Daniel Murphy’s] last year as well. I don’t know if you guys have been watching but we have a 19-year-old that was called up that’s pretty good. And there’s another kid in the minor leagues that came up last year that’s pretty good as well and the top two pitchers in our rotation are signed here forever and they’re decent, so I think we’re going to be pretty good — the shortstop’s got a good career ahead of him as well. Do we want to keep everyone together? Of course.
“We went through the same thing from the team that won it in ‘12 with [Ian Desmond] and the guys that have been here forever, it’s just what happens in sports. Would I love to play with Bryce my entire career? Absolutely. Who wouldn’t. I think he’s one of the best players in the game. Who knows what’s going to happen, maybe he comes back, maybe he doesn’t, but to say that there’s pressure? I don’t — I think there’s pressure every year.
“If we don’t make the playoffs, if we don’t get past the first round of the playoffs, that’s just how it is, but I don’t think anyone in here would have it any other way. That’s what you play the game for.
“We want to compete for the championship, not the first pick. It’s pretty close this year, about how many teams are competing for each one, but that’s a different conversation.”
Davey Martinez, who’s wrapping up his first half of a season as a manager after ten years as a bench coach, is still competing for a championship.
He was asked over the weekend to sum up the first 96 games and his experience in his new job.
“We’ve had a lot of adversity, and it’s been challenging,” Martinez said, “but I’ve enjoyed all the challenges and I really got to appreciate all the players — even the guys that aren’t here right now and what they’ve given to this team so far. You go through that much change, all those people up and down and all the injuries, to be where we’re at right now in a position where we could do something special means a lot, so for me it’s been wonderful, it really has, and I’m looking forward to the second half.”
Martinez was also asked if there was anything he learned about dealing with adversity as a coach that he’s been able to apply and anything that’s new that he’s had to learn on the fly in the manager’s job.
He said it’s just reinforced his belief that it’s all about working together towards one goal, or pulling on the same rope as Harper is fond of saying.
“I think for the most part it’s about the ‘We’, and about staying together,” Martinez said, “and that’s what I see so far that this team has done. They could have fell apart a while ago, but we’ve actually stayed together and I think that’s going to help us moving forward.”
“When we get Zim back and [Stephen Strasburg] back, that’s definitely going to help as well,” Adam Eaton added.
“I think Zim’s leadership on the field is tremendous for us. I think when Murph is running regularly and hitting like he can, I think that’s huge for us as well. I think missing that leadership has been big for us. It’s just contagious, you know? When Zim’s up there, you have that confidence in him that he’s going to be the guy to get it done, and you don’t want to be the guy that doesn’t. Like I said, I think that type of leadership is missed and we’ll be excited to get them back.”
Luckily for the Nationals, as they’ve struggled with consistency in all aspects of the game over this last few weeks the second-place Atlanta Braves (2-8) in their last ten, and first-place Philadelphia Phillies (6-4) over that stretch, haven’t run up an insurmountable lead.
“My concerns are us,” Martinez said though, noting, “we just need to take care of us and start winning some ballgames consistently. That’s the big thing. If we play the way we’re capable of playing, we’ll make up that ground.”