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Watching the Washington Nationals is like being in a time warp

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It’s almost like the years when they were the worst team in baseball.

Washington Nationals v Milwaukee Brewers
Washington Nationals manager Davey Martinez is being patient with his mistake-prone roster, increasing the likelihood that the team will endure more losing seasons before it can contend again.
Photo by John Fisher/Getty Images

This was the wrong season to take a vacation at the trade deadline.

Two weeks in a different environment and a change in the pace of life is good for anyone, but what a culture shock upon returning! It’s like falling asleep for 20 years or going back in time, maybe to 2010.

Because the last time the Washington Nationals were 53-70 was on Aug 22, 2010, with Jim Riggleman bringing home a 69-93, last-place team. That record earned the Nationals the right to draft Anthony Rendon at No. 6 in the first round the next season. That was also the year the Nats drafted Bryce Harper No. 1 and Drew Storen at No. 10, and Stephen Strasburg made his major league debut, a year after he was the No. 1 overall pick.

So, yes, the correlation is clear between consecutive 103-loss and 102-loss seasons in 2008 and 2009, the 93-loss 2010 season, and the building blocks of four division winners and a World Series champion. The next season, the Nats flirted with .500 for the first time since moving from Montreal in 2005, and a year after that, they finished with a best-in-baseball 98-64 mark.

So it took the Nationals three seasons to go from the worst to best in baseball over 162 games. That could be the quickest turnaround any team has seen yet from at least three consecutive seasons of top 10 draft picks, and that’s what the Nats are clearly going for this season and possibly next.

No one on the roster is trying to lose games, but with the team-building strategy that the Nationals have embarked on, it’s inevitable.

Despite the amount of talent and “upside” in the haul of prospects and young players the Nats got in return for their veterans, they also got a lot of inexperience and mistakes to be ironed out as growing pains.

This team is playing on a 34-128 pace in August and seems hard wired to lose 100 or more games next season without major improvement.

The myriad fundamental mistakes this weekend in Milwaukee should make the Nationals seriously consider putting “Yakkety Sax” and themes from “Carmen,” (“Bad News Bears” music) in their in-game rotation.

And in looking at the lineups, it’s not “Who’s on first?” but “Is anyone home?”

Of all the bases, home is the most important to cover because that’s the one a runner has to touch to score. Yet in two consecutive embarrassing losses, Milwaukee base-runners scored on a plate that left nothing to the imagination.

On Saturday, 15-year veteran Ryan Zimmerman risked injury with a mad dash and dive that still didn’t prevent Kolten Wong from scoring from third on a foul pop. That mistake was on rookie pitcher Gabe Klobosits, according to manager Davey Martinez.

Again on Sunday, when Josh Bell overthrew Riley Adams on a tag play at home plate, one of the three runners, Manny Piña, was probably going to score on the error, anyway. But because no one was at home while Adams retrieved the ball (Martinez did not assign blame publicly, but it seems either the pitcher, Klobosits, or Bell, was out of position), Wong crossed an uncovered plate for the second game in a row, and Willy Adames took third.

Speaking of pitchers: Many Nats’ hurlers have struggled at some point this season, including some that the team traded away. But the younger arms are allowing more runners (H+BB+HBP), 12.3 per game since Aug. 1, than the 11.8 per game the veterans yielded before then.

Those stats don’t include the 11 walks the team issued to Milwaukee on Sunday. That ties three others for the second-most in a game since the team moved to Washington in 2005, behind only a 12-walk victory over Atlanta on Sept. 11, 2020.

Milwaukee ran wild on the Nats’ rookie catching corps, too. Lorenzo Cain stole two bases without a throw on Friday, Christian Yelich was uncontested on a steal that led to a go-ahead run on Saturday, and Avisaíl Garcia added another steal on Sunday.

Then there were all the Brewers who went from first to third on singles.

Milwaukee runners may have spent less time at second base this weekend than a traveler in an airport restroom.

Manager Davey Martinez walks a fine line every day between listing all the basic mistakes the team makes in losing games and praising his players’ competitiveness and hustle. He and his staff will certainly be patient in correcting these mistakes, so there will be more losses, and more after that.

The players are clearly doing their best, but the roster is still mistake-prone enough to routinely give away outs and bases and games. So let’s just call this what it looks and smells like: Tanking.

A top 10 draft choice in 2022 is more likely every day this season, a top five pick in 2023 is also likely, and another top 10 pick in 2024 is not out of the question.

So the 2008-2010 model offers three seasons of tanking and two more after that until the team becomes a perennial contender. Five years to wait for a winner, compared with 11 seasons since the Nationals last drafted in the top 10.

Eleven years is a long time.

It was enough time for the team to establish the longest stretch of winning seasons in Washington baseball history, from 2012 through the 2019 World Series championship.

Eight straight seasons finishing better than .500 is twice as many as the original Nats/Senators could ever string together in their 60-year run in the nation’s capital. The expansion Senators had just one winning season before packing off off to Texas after 1971.

Eleven years is also enough for fans who once considered themselves lucky to have a team to develop expectations. It‘s long enough for fans to not only bond over at least one potential Hall of Famer whose career flourished before our eyes, but to expect the team to bring in more players who brought big returns, like Jayson Werth, Max Scherzer, and Daniel Murphy.

We watched general manager Mike Rizzo turn out contenders in each of those eight winning seasons. Once the Nats drop another dozen games this year, we’ll have two straight losing seasons and a couple more likely on tap.

Eleven years is also long enough for other teams to join the race to the bottom as well. The down escalator is seeing some heavy traffic. Baltimore, Arizona, Pittsburgh, and Texas have all won fewer than 50 games so far.

What if the economics of the game change in the new collective bargaining agreement?

How does this strategy look with a salary floor and corresponding cap?

What if baseball expands the postseason, creating less incentive for teams to improve their rosters?

What if the draft process changes so as not to reward teams for stringing together 100-loss seasons?

There are a lot of prospect reports coming out now, with accompanied gushing over how many top 10 or top 50 or top 100 prospects a team has. But teams don't hang banners and hoist trophies or hold parades for having the best minor-league system.

What we pay for as ticket holders and supporters of the team’s sponsors is major league-level baseball, with realistic hopes of the postseason. Without that, we’ll spend the rest of the season looking for sparks, signs of talent, and even the basic joy of baseball in this team that Rizzo has put together to end this season.

But barring a surprise move this off-season, there will be a lot of losing for at least two more seasons after this one. No matter how the strategy plays out, Nats fans will have to be patient.