After splitting a doubleheader with the Miami Marlins on Friday, the Nationals are 19-30. A loss today would put them at 19-31. That’s the same mark that triggered their remarkable comeback to eventually win it all last season.
But it’s different this year. There’s nothing particularly mystical or magical about that particular record; it just happened to be the point where the team turned the 2019 season around. But in 2020, the math won’t work for that kind of comeback.
In a 60-game season, 19-31 guarantees a losing record.
“I’ve been on both sides,” utility man Josh Harrison said after Friday’s nightcap. “Playoff teams, teams that are fighting down to the last day, baseball is unpredictable, anything can happen.”
“I’ve never been a very quick starter, and I always prided myself on finishing the season strong, as strong as I could possibly do,” said manager Davey Martinez.
Many people would not equate the final days of an abridged, COVID-stained season with a postseason elimination game, but baseball fans around the nation’s capital can’t be blamed for feeling a bit differently.
A city whose baseball team was once mocked as a perennial cellar dweller and then went 34 seasons without even a team to cheer for has actually become used to winning.
Of course, we had to get used to losing for a few more years, six to be exact. But once the team turned that corner, jumping from 80-81 in 2011 to an astonishing 98 wins and its first Division title in 2012, it didn’t turn back. Even in the darkest days of the Matt Williams era, the team finished 83-79. The other non-postseason year in that run, 2018, the Nats went 82-80 in Martinez’ rookie managerial season.
Okay, many of us will admit that we’re spoiled. Do we have a right to be? Probably not. But even if your team doesn’t go all the way, it’s still a lot more fun to watch when it’s winning more than games than it’s losing. And nothing is heavier than the weight of expectations, especially the season after winning the World Series.
Not many wind up in last place the year after the World Series, but it happens. The last time was in 2015, when a Boston Red Sox team that had won 97 games the year before crashed to 71-91.
One National on both of those Boston teams was utility man Brock Holt, who pitched the bottom of the sixth inning of the Nats’ 14-3 loss on Friday’s nightcap. Holt won a second World Series with the Sox in 2018 before that team fell to 84-78 last season.
“You hear about it all the time, the World Series hangover,” Holt said after Friday’s games.
“And I lived it in 2019, and obviously I haven’t been here very long, but I’m a believer in the hangover.”
With a usually long season with multiple games against every opponent, baseball isn’t a “life-or-death” sport, and players and managers don’t put much weight on any one game.
The standard throwaway line for a disappointing season is “we just ran out of games.” But it’s never really been applicable until 2020. The fact is, the Nats ran out of games before the season started, when the schedule was cut to 60 games because of the COVID pandemic. The team that took the field in 2020 was missing substantial players from the year before. Kooky new rules like the man on second base to start extra innings and the universal designated hitter didn’t help, either.
“I’m sure it’s even more magnified this year, going from what they went from last year to playing in a season like this with no fans and it’s difficult. You’re mentally exhausted, you’re physically exhausted after the season,” said Holt.
“Pitchers are throwing more than they’ve thrown their entire lives, their entire careers, starters are starting games, pitching out of the bullpen, and it takes a toll. Your body doesn’t have the chance to recover like it’s used to in the offseason, it’s a quick turnaround, and so many things have to go right for a team to be the last one standing.”
“Every day is a challenge in itself, we’re talking about 2020, there’s so many things going on,“ said Harrison.
The most comparable major league season to this one is 1944, when most of the game’s best players were serving in World War II, leaving otherwise washed up veterans, youngsters and career minor leaguers to play the game. Making their only World Series appearance that year were the St. Louis Browns, who immediately returned to the dregs of the American League the next year and would move to Baltimore in another 10 seasons. The powerhouse New York Yankees were six games back.
We can’t just throw away the 2020 season, but we have to put it in its proper context as an unusual circumstance. It was a chance to see what the team would look like minus a few stars.
The thing is, it’s still going on. There are 10 games to play.
“It’s baseball,” said Holt. “And that’s the beauty of it. For us, it’s just finish strong, that’s basically all we can do.”
“My job is just to stay ready,“ said Harrison. “And if I’m in there, I’m in there, and if not, I know I have an opportunity coming off the bench. But we’re still statistically in it, and baseball is a game you have to show up every day.”
Martinez knows it’s his job to keep the team playing sharp in the final eleven games and prepare the groundwork for 2021.
“It eases the winter a little bit, and you go back, you can relax and you get ready for Spring,” said Martinez. “So I always tell these guys, regardless of where we’re at, you got to make a push, you got to push, you got to keep playing hard. We got to finish up strong. You need to finish up strong.
“You go in the winter and you feel good about yourself and you get ready and get ready for Spring Training.”