Following the 2020 Nationals is not for the faint of heart.
You go in knowing your team was the best in the major leagues last season, but in return, you get a different game with new rules and sometimes extreme conditions.
And the result is a team that has many of the same players as the World Series champions but bears no actual resemblance to that team.
Wednesday night’s 3-0 loss to the Philadelphia Phillies offers a fine example of this bizarro, unpredictable 2020 season. Zack Wheeler — yes THAT Zack Wheeler — limited the Nats to three hits over 6 2⁄3 shutout innings. And for the second straight night, baseball’s two hottest hitters got the cold shoulder, with Trea Turner going 0-for-4 and Juan Soto 0-for-3 with a walk.
That the Nats could not muster three runs, let alone three hits, against Zack Wheeler is a sure sign that the world, and baseball, and the Nats are much different now than they were a year ago. Wheeler came into the game with a 5-10 career mark with a 5.01 ERA in 18 starts.
But that was when he was with the New York Mets. Wheeler has turned himself around in Philadelphia, now 4-0, 2.20 ERA. He’s also getting out hitters who have raked against him in previous years, like Turner, who had a career .409/.458/.591 line against him, or Adam Eaton (.455/.556/.545). Neither had a hit against Wheeler, or any other Phillies’ pitcher on Wednesday.
“I think they might be pressing a little bit. I mean, we’re not scoring any runs,” manager Davey Martinez said after the game. “The frustration shows when we have a chance, an opportunity to do something, they all want to do it, they want to be the guy, and they just need to take it easy, work the count, work at bats.”
Max Scherzer looked and acted like the Max Scherzer of 2019 — the Max Scherzer we all know and love — but again, something is different this year. Known for his distaste for walks, Scherzer has now given up 16 in 43 innings this season, a much higher rate than normal.
Scherzer issued two of those walks to J.T. Realmuto and Jean Segura on Wednesday night in the top of the fourth. For Scherzer, the only thing worse than walking a batter is having him come around to score, and both did, on Neil Walker’s broken-bat single to center, giving the Phillies a 2-0 lead.
“Just wasn’t able to get ahead there on either Realmuto or Segura, so that set up a bad inning,“ said Scherzer. “But I’ve walked two guys. You almost kind of deserve it in that situation.”
No Max Scherzer start is complete without an unfortunate home run. That came in the sixth inning, when Jay Bruce got ahold of a 1-1 curveball on the outside of the plate and swatted it over the left field fence. Scherzer stormed off the field and took out his frustrations on his glove in the dugout.
“We’re on a losing streak, and you want to be the stopper and I wasn’t. And that’s frustrating,” said Scherzer. “I allowed a tack-on run, which makes it even harder for our offense to score, and just kind of the way the sixth inning was unfolding it was frustrating for me, so yeah, it’s emotional, I slammed my glove, oh well.”
So Scherzer was hardly himself, striking out only six and not getting the swings and misses he was looking for.
Still, holding the Phillies to three runs on seven hits over six innings wasn’t good enough to win on a night when the offense wasn’t there.
“I’m really trying to focus on location and really trying to locate, but sometimes I get caught nibbling a little too much when I should be aggressive,“ Scherzer reflected. “I think I need to be a little more aggressive towards the zone so that I don’t nibble as much and that will just naturally bring the walks down.”
He’s also going back to work on his repertoire.
“My changeup isn’t as effective right now, it just doesn’t have the same action on it. That will send me back to the drawing board.”
Things are much different this year than they were in 2019. At 12-22, 10 games under .500, and nine games out of first place, the Nats are farther along in the season than the 19-31 mark last season that Martinez and others still use as a rallying cry. But be it the pandemic, new players, the wacky schedule, the new rules, the lack of fans — we could go on — but whatever it is, it’s taken the magic out of the Washington Nationals.
But there’s no way to get that magic back except to keep trying.
“At the end of the game, all I could tell the boys, ‘Keep swinging the bats, keep hitting the ball hard,” said Martinez. “We’ll score some runs, we were scoring some runs before, so just stay right there and just keep hitting the balls hard, they’ll start falling.”