WASHINGTON -- The new addition to the left field flags flapped quietly on Wednesday. The flag of Washington, D.C. and the flag of the United States were joined this season by a new, white one to commemorate the Nationals’ 2019 World Series win. Few were on hand to watch it raised two months ago when a lost season began.
Opportunity to celebrate wasn’t the only thing missing in 2020. The fans, the mojo, motivation, quality play. All were absent for a downtrodden Nationals team which was eliminated from postseason contention in the wee hours of Thursday morning when the Giants beat the Rockies. All that remains is lamenting and playing out the string. The season ends Sunday.
The flag was often limp in a light breeze Wednesday. It’s an easy metaphor for what went on around it this season. The Nationals started the year with a pumped-up, nationally-televised game against the New York Yankees. But Juan Soto received a positive coronavirus test result, rain cut the game short and the team took an initial step into the muck. They never emerged in the next two months.
Two prevailing feelings trailed the Nationals in the 56 games before they were eliminated from postseason contention. First, they felt cheated out of a victory lap. Second, they were oddly short on vibe.
Thoughts about being under-recognized began in the first stage of spring training. Houston’s scandal became the main storyline in West Palm Beach at the teams’ shared spring training facility. The Nationals almost appeared to use it as a motivator even more than the concept of defending. They won, they wanted the laurels, yet so many were occupied with the Astros’ dastardliness.
“One of the problems I have with it, it’s [the first spring training day] 2020, and there’s 50 media outlets here and 47 of them are for the Astros who cheated to win the World Series and there’s three here with the current reigning World Series champions,” Mike Rizzo said then. “And that’s not right.”
The commemorative World Series flag went up five months later with players watching. No family, no fans, no extended hoopla. No roars being measured for their largess or reactions to compilation videos being rated for their joy. No burst when Howie Kendrick’s home run hit the foul pole or after Daniel Hudson’s slider again cut under the hands of Michael Brantley. Everything was anticlimactic from the start.
“The more the season has gone on, the more I’ve thought about it,” Adam Eaton said. “Early on, everyone said that and I didn’t really put two and two together. I honestly was like, whatever, we’ll go play these 60 games, it’s going to stink.
“But when you raise the banner and there’s no fans there to be able to enjoy it... I go back to, I think it was 2016, whenever the Kansas City Royals won the World Series [and I was on] the White Sox, and when they raised the banner, I was there for Opening Day. Just to be able to have the fans there and have the celebration with everybody is something that’s kind of been ripped away from us.”
Eaton was asked if they felt “cheated” in a way.
“Cheated? I think it’s kind of a fair word, to be honest with you,” Eaton said. “With the whole COVID thing and situation, you do feel a little cheated. You wish now looking back it would be an enjoyable 162.”
A next-season crash is becoming standard for the defending World Series champions. The 2016 San Francisco Giants finished 84-78. The 2017 Royals went 81-81. The 2018 Chicago Cubs countered the trend with 92 wins. The 2019 Red Sox finished 84-78. Then, this 2020 Nationals team set the most distinct bar for post-title failure. Their current record would equate to 62-89 in a regular 162-game season. Any supposed curse is no longer attached to the breakthrough. It’s the next year which becomes spooky.
“I’m a believer in the hangover,” said Brock Holt, who was on the winning Boston team and is now on the Nationals. “I think it’s just, you go from such a high and playing such meaningful games... 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. It’s difficult. You’re mentally exhausted, you’re physically exhausted after the season. Pitchers have thrown more than they’ve thrown their entire lives, entire careers.
“So many things have to go right for a team to be the last one standing. I lived it in ‘19. Everything went right for us in ‘18, then it didn’t seem like anything went right in ‘19 with the Red Sox. Guys got hurt, the ball didn’t bounce our way. That’s baseball.”
Those final two words can loosely be applied to this season. The 60-game season was implausibly brief but slow, something that moved quickly yet seemed to take forever to do so. Kurt Suzuki recently said it felt like the Nationals had played 200 games. The mechanics of their day, like everyone across the league, became a silenced grind. The juice of a season was replaced by cardboard cutouts. Foul balls echoed among empty seats. A lone fan booed from a nearby rooftop.
Amid that muted environment, this became the 20th consecutive season without a repeat champion in Major League Baseball. The Nationals became the 11th champion to miss the playoffs the following season. And they will forever remain the first to go pack the following year without a champion’s lovefest at home before a yearlong tour as champions through the league.
“We often talk about that in the group,” Davey Martinez said. “I really feel horrible for the guys because they earned every bit of that. But I always tell them, hey look, 2021 is coming. There will be baseball. Hopefully, there will be fans. And these fans won’t forget. We’re world champs. Nobody’s going to ever take that away from us. Keep your heads up. If guys are not here, we’ll make sure we’ll bring them back to visit and we’ll make sure they have that. For me, they need to have that closure.”
Thursday delivered a different end in the interim.