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A Rich Strike comeback takes more than the Washington Nationals have in the tank

The Derby champion and his team have a few qualities the Nats might be lacking this year...

MLB: Washington Nationals at Los Angeles Angels Jonathan Hui-USA TODAY Sports

So Davey Martinez thinks Kentucky Derby champion Rich Strike can be an inspiration for his last-place Washington Nationals?

Baseball comebacks like the Derby long shot’s are about more than just desire. They take a combination of desire, talent, leadership, and experience in a blend that changes every season.

The Nats are still determining if they have the talent to get from the back of the pack to finish “in the money” — securing one of the six NL postseason spots.

But Martinez and his team are also clearly still searching for the degrees of experience and leadership that spark runs like their own rally in 2019 from 19-31 to the World Series title.

A run like that certainly didn’t start on a 4-5 road trip like the one the 10-20 Nats just completed — rife with outs, bases, and games given away.

In case you missed Saturday’s Kentucky Derby, Rich Strike was an alternate who qualified the day before when another horse scratched. Veteran jockey Sonny Leon zigzagged the 80-1 longshot through a field of 19 other horses, chased down the tiring co-favorite leaders in the stretch, and won by three-quarters of a length.

The Nats watched the race excitedly in their clubhouse before Saturday’s 7-4 win over the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, and Martinez noted that he’d like to see his team catch fire like that.

But Sunday’s 5-4 walk-off loss to the Angels just offered more examples of why this year’s version of the Nats is much more like the horses who lost their breath trying to catch up to the sprinters ahead of them.

They had nothing in the tank when the fast closers made their moves.

If these two teams were racehorses, three-time AL Most Valuable Player Mike Trout, former Nats’ World Series champion Anthony Rendon, and two-way superstar Sohei Ohtani would have trotted right into the stakes barn to get hosed down for the next big race, while the gassing Nats would be trucking back to their home stable.

The Nats had a chance to make a big move in the sixth inning when they had the Angels down 2-0 with two outs and men on first and second for Alcides Escobar.

Did Trout, a center fielder with a pedestrian .983 career fielding percentage, really bobble the transfer on Escobar’s routine single to center? And did it really allow Maikel Franco to score from second and make it 3-0?

Or did the nine-time All Star just set himself up to throw instead to Rendon?

The Nats’ 2019 All-Star, acknowledged as underrated defensively in Washington, dutifully straddled his bag as he took Trout’s perfect one-hopper while Lane Thomas chugged out a head-down run from first.

How far out was Thomas?

Third base umpire Edwin Moscoso’s fist was next to right his ear, poised for the punch-out, as Thomas was beginning his slide.

By the time Thomas slid into the tag, he’d likely relived several times over one of the most embarrassing scoldings any Little Leaguer ever received, “Never make the third out at third base!”

The Nats had gained a little ground on their opponent but clearly left a lane open for what would prove to be a brutal stretch run.

As the Nats gasped their last, the pedigreed, poised, and talented Angels breezed past at the wire.

Protecting a 4-2 lead, Tanner Rainey struck out Jack Mayfield before walking Luis Rengifo, who took third on a single by Taylor Ward.

Now it was Rainey, whose opponents’ batting average went from .207 to .267 in 23 of an inning in his first blown save of the season, against Ohtani, whose talent no National can come close to matching.

Ohtani swung and missed at one strike, then pounded the next one off the center field wall to tie the game, and suddenly, the two horses were at the wire.

The Nats then found out what they’re missing in Rendon — as if they didn’t already know the four-time Silver Slugger winner helped them win the 2019 World Series with his clutch bat.

The first ball he saw over the plate, Rendon lofted to left-center field for a clean hit.

Ohtani raced home, the Angels walked off, and Nats lugged back home.

The 2022 Nationals have some premier talent, but the veteran leadership that pervaded the clubhouse in the 2019 World Series has yielded to a core that’s not quite so influential and lacking the championship experience that sparks deep postseason runs.

Martinez and his staff also have yet to stem the fundamental mistakes that cost the Nats Sunday’s game and others on this trip — like the scoring chance they killed when Soto was picked off third with nobody out in the fifth inning of Thursday’s 9-7 loss in Colorado.

One has to wonder how much patience general manager Mike Rizzo will have for these lapses, or how much patience ownership will have for the whole situation.

So far in 2022, the Nats have shown few of the qualities that made them champions in 2019 and Rich Strike a surprise winner last weekend.

The deep, talented leaders thunder ahead, while the Nats plod on.

Not only won’t the Nats finish close to the money in 2022, they might throw a rider who can’t seem to control this beast.