The Washington Nationals’ title defense is over. Mathematically it was over as soon as they lost the series finale to the Philadelphia Phillies, but MLB officially recognized them as eliminated once the San Francisco Giants won in the early hours of Thursday morning.
Anyway, the Nats did clutch onto their final few straws by winning the first three games against Bryce Harper’s Phillies, all while denting the visitors’ playoff hopes at the same time. But with Wednesday’s loss, it was curtains for the Nationals in a 12-3 blowout loss.
Here are the main takeaways from the Nats’ penultimate series of 2020...
Quality outings had been few and far between for Austin Voth in 2020. In his first eight starts of the year, he only allowed one run or less in one game, leading to a 7.99 ERA and had some questioning whether it was worth bumping him to the bullpen to end the season.
“When things were down, there was a whole lot of conversations with him, 1-on-1 conversations with him,” manager Dave Martinez told reporters. “At one point he thought we were going to put him in the bullpen and I told him, ‘I’m not going to do that to you. You’re our fifth starter. I appointed you the fifth starter, so you’re going to go out there and you’re going to start and you’re going to pitch.’”
After that conversation with Martinez, Voth looked markedly better against the Tampa Bay Rays. He was able to hold one of the best teams in baseball to just one run in five innings of work.
Then came the first game of Tuesday’s doubleheader against the Phillies. Following up on his victory over the Rays, Voth delivered a gem, tossing a seven-inning complete game while allowing one run on three hits with a walk and striking out seven.
“His last two outings have been what I knew that he could do,” manager Dave Martinez told reporters. “He worked hard to get to where he’s at now, so kudos to him as well for just going out there and staying positive and having confidence.
“And for me that’s a big thing, the confidence with some of these guys. You build that confidence and then all of a sudden they take off, and he looked like that guy that we had last year where he could pump strikes, he could throw anything over for strikes, and he’s going to get outs and he did that today.”
Voth is currently lined up to start the final game of the season for the Nationals against the New York Mets with one final chance to make an impression and influence the front office’s rotation plans this offseason.
Yadiel called game
With only 23 wins in 2020, the Nats haven’t had many moments to look back on fondly in this strange season. But Yadiel Hernández did provide at least one more on Wednesday.
With the Nationals down a run in the bottom of the eighth of a seven-inning game, the 32-year-old launched a two-run, walk-off home run — his first long ball in the majors — to win the game, win the series, and keep his team mathematically alive for one more day.
Oh, and Hernández gave a pretty majestic bat flip to commemorate the walk-off home run.
IT'S. YADIEL. BAT. FLIPPING. SEASON. pic.twitter.com/WW5PSI4O3g— Blake Finney (@FinneyBlake) September 23, 2020
“Big home run right there, his first one of his career,” Martinez said gleefully after the game. “It was outstanding. It was a good pick me up, it really was for our club.”
“I know he can hit, I’ve seen him hit, so it’s good to see him get a couple hits and hit that big home run for us.”
Because of injuries and with the Nats out of postseason contention, it’s given Hernández — who would’ve been eligible for the Rule 5 Draft this offseason had he not had his contract selected from the minor leagues — an opportunity to step in and get semi-regular at-bats.
It didn’t start off that well for him at the big league level, but he should get more chances in the final series of the year to make his mark and have more moments like that home run.
Kieboom’s disappointing year ends
One of the biggest storylines of the Nationals’ 2020 season was always going to be the performance of their top prospect at the time, Carter Kieboom.
Unfortunately, that storyline came to an abrupt end in the first game of this series as the young infielder took a Zack Wheeler fastball to his hand and he was removed from the game.
Kieboom was subsequently placed on the Injured List on Wednesday, ending his season.
“He’s got a lot of swelling in there,” Martinez said after the series. “He had an X-ray, it came back negative, but his hand’s swollen. We want to get that swelling down and get him another X-ray.”
You can’t blame the Nationals for taking as much caution as possible with one of their highly-rated young talents with only four relatively meaningless games remaining this year.
“He hasn’t gotten really that much better. His mobility is not very good, so we want to make sure.
“Once we get a second X-ray, when the swelling is down to make sure that there’s no significant damage in that hand. I just want to be safe.
Stepping into Anthony Rendon’s old hot corner, Kieboom wasn’t expected to replace all of his predecessor’s production. He was expected to be a big part of filling that gap though and overall this season, he disappointed to the tune of a .202/.344/.212 slash line in 33 games.
The least the Nationals were hoping for was for Kieboom to prove he was nowhere near the disaster his brief stint in 2019 was but he didn’t do a lot better than that in 2020.
Sure, the Nats will probably give him some sort of mulligan given the circumstances that the season took place in this year. It will be interesting to see how much his struggles this year have affected how the team views him moving forward.
As mentioned at the top of this recap, Wednesday’s loss in the series finale against the Phillies meant the Nationals were mathematically eliminated from postseason contention.
Their goal coming into the year was to become the first team to repeat as champions since the New York Yankees won three-straight World Series between 1998 and 2000, and just the 22nd team to accomplish the feat. Yesterday meant they officially fell short of that goal.
“It’s difficult,” Martinez said of the challenge of defending their title. “Not too many teams have done it.
“With that being said, it was definitely a challenge with everything going on this year.”
If they lose their final series of the year against the Mets, the Nationals will have the second-worst winning percentage, behind only the 1998 Florida Marlins, among defending champions since 1903, which many consider the first modern World Series.
Even if they win or sweep the series, they will be third-worst behind the Marlins and the 2014 Boston Red Sox. Even in a pandemic-affected season, it wasn’t pretty for the Nats.
Anyway, now that their fate is sealed, the Nats will turn their attention to getting ready for next season, which they remain optimistic for regardless of how their title defense went in 2020.
“What I do like is our potential for 2021,” the manager explained. “I’ll say it again, we got our starting pitching, those horses our coming back.
“Our bullpen, I like the back end of our bullpen has shaped up, and those guys will be fresh and ready to go.
“We got some really young talent, we’ve got some other young talent that hopefully we’ll see in Spring Training. That will help us in 2021. I’m really excited about the future of this organization and where we’re headed.
“I do believe in my heart that next year we’ll compete again for a division title and get in those playoffs. As you know, once you’re in those playoffs, anything can happen. But I really believe that in the future, as early as next year we’ll be back battling again for a playoff spot.
With the team’s up and coming young hitting core and most of the dominant rotation they rode to the World Series last year intact, the Nationals will have a chance to return to form next year.
They will be more than happy to put this strange season behind them and prepare for 2021.
Next up: In the final series of the season for the Nationals, they hope to play spoiler against the New York Mets, who still have an outside shot at the playoffs. Patrick Corbin, Max Scherzer, Aníbal Sánchez, and Austin Voth are set to start for the hosts to round out the year.