Mediocre Nats believe they will turn it around before it's too late

MLB columnist
Yahoo Sports

LOS ANGELES — The Washington Nationals have not been very good so far, because a few of their good players are hurt, because their bullpen has been the worst in the National League and there are other reasons, like they strike out too much and their defense has been untidy, which probably are related to the first reason.

Thirty-seven games into their first season in eight without Bryce Harper, they are in fourth place in the National League East, as they’ve won just 15 of those 37, and so in D.C. have begun the conversations of culpability. It’s ownership, which shoveled $140 million at Patrick Corbin and skimped on who would pitch after him. It’s Mike Rizzo, the general manager, whose job is to ensure not only talent but depth. It’s Davey Martinez, the manager, who’s supposed to find a way no matter what, to rally the boys toward the greater good and all. It’s the pitching coach, who … yeah, he got canned a week ago.

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Honestly, the Nationals have always been a difficult franchise to wrap one’s arms around, probably because they change managers like they’re oil filters, on a schedule and whether necessary or not, and also because every October the oil leaks all over the driveway anyway.

This spring, you wouldn’t have had to go far to find an opinion that the Nationals would be very good, even win-the-NL-East good, which still might happen. This was based on the signing of Corbin and the fact he’d lay in behind Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg, and also nobody really believed the Nationals would actually stick with that bullpen, so maybe that would be Craig Kimbrel or a second-tier guy or someone whose current ERA wasn’t an approximation of his cap size.

The Washington Nationals are off to a slow start this season, but got back in the win column Thursday night thanks to Patrick Corbin. (AP)
The Washington Nationals are off to a slow start this season, but got back in the win column Thursday night thanks to Patrick Corbin. (AP)

Then, too, there was the recognition of baseball’s notoriously wry sense of humor, in this case having Harper toil for seven fruitless seasons (and four postseasons) in D.C., then jump to division foe Philadelphia, then watch from there as the Nats broke through and wound up in the World Series. The game is ridiculously petty and cruel and not very funny like that. And yet it persists.

Where this heads for the Nats and ultimately ends will be determined by the baseball they play, which takes time. Trea Turner took batting practice Thursday, which amounts to progress. Juan Soto is due back any day. Neither solves the bullpen thing, except maybe there’ll be bigger leads to protect. Or leads at all. The rest is a bit of a mystery. In the meantime, there’s been some speculation regarding Martinez’s job security, which could be nothing more than a ceremonial coupling of the Nats’ 15-22 record and the club’s historically casual attitude about who gets to stand on the top step. Then again, under Martinez, the Nats were a dreary 82-80 last season, that was before March, April, and May of this season and these things do add up. There is the question of who would step in, if it were merited, if it would make a difference, or if it may actually harm the product.

After all, Dusty Baker ain’t walking through that door. I mean, not unless you called him and asked him to. Then he might.

Thursday afternoon found Martinez at his desk at Dodger Stadium, a few hours removed from the Nationals’ fourth consecutive loss and 14th in 19 games, a couple hours until Corbin would pitch against the Los Angeles Dodgers, ahead of Scherzer and Strasburg starts this weekend. It could turn, even here, even against the Dodgers, if only the rest of his guys would hit and catch the ball a bit better. They’d win Thursday night, so that’s something.

He is by consensus a superior guy who knows the game just fine. Everybody likes him. That is not the issue, if there is one. The Nationals have earned the expectation that they be at the very least competent, given the recent division titles and their ability to produce and raise the likes of Victor Robles and Soto, to acquire Turner, to spend for Corbin. The injuries are bad luck. Nobody cares. Everybody’s got ‘em. Nobody wants to hear about ‘em. Unless you’re the Yankees. It’s the baseball season, so time to play baseball.

“Oh, you know, I don’t sleep,” Martinez said with a laugh. “I’ve got four beautiful children. But, honestly, I’ve got 25. You know? I feel for each and every one of them. I really do. I want them all to succeed and do well. Sometimes it doesn’t work out that way. But you gotta keep pushing and stay positive with them and things will change. They’re up here for a reason. They can play the game.”

The Washington Nationals are 15-22 so far this season. Getty Images)
The Washington Nationals are 15-22 so far this season. Getty Images)

He said he believes the bullpen will right itself with the men already on the roster or, presumably, in the cases of Trevor RosenthalKoda Glover and Tony Sipp, who will be on the roster again one day. He said the bullpen has pitched better lately. Its ERA in May is over 8. He insisted the fellas have played hard, that the results would turn any day, that the daily goal was to start over, get to 1-0, go from there. They are 1-0 then, counting the past 24 hours.

“That’s all I can ask from them,” he said. “This will turn around. I really believe that.

“No one’s happy in the clubhouse with where we’re at. I can tell you that right now.”

They’re not alone, probably. Not when the payroll is $185 million. Not with where they’ve been. Not with the decisions that have been made. Not considering what this was supposed to look like. The Nats can heal up, lead with their starting rotation, survive the innings ahead of Sean Doolittle, make something of this after all. It wouldn’t even be that hard. But they probably shouldn’t wait much longer. Harper’s team is playing pretty well, after all, as are a few teams Harper isn’t playing for.

“You said this is a really good organization,” Martinez said. “I believe this is a great organization. And by the end of the year, we’ll be where we need to be.”

So, 1-0 is a reasonable start. A bunch more of those, they’ll be mediocre again.

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