The season crept past its midpoint Sunday during a sun-washed day in Fenway Park. The Nationals lost, again, dropping their record to a languishing 12-19. They are the second-worst team in the National League. They have a 26 percent chance to reach the postseason, according to fivethirtyeight.com.
Though it took just 31 games to arrive in the middle of this complicated season and the end of August, the journey was laborious. Davey Martinez recently mentioned over the weekend that “it feels like we played 175 games already. It’s just one of those weird years.”
And yet, their fate is unclear. The expanded postseason leaves room for a mediocre team to think it can participate. Growing the playoffs to 16 teams total, eight per league, is on pace to allow half the field to be teams with a .500 record -- or worse. So, the Nationals are still hanging around, even if their play suggests it’s time to worry about next year.
“Well, obviously I think we’d love to win more,” Trea Turner said Saturday. “But, I always go back to, are we in games? I feel like we are. Every night we’re in the game.”
The environment has been a season-long challenge. Adam Eaton mentioned the oddness of no fans in the stands. Aníbal Sánchez brought it up, too. However, that’s the common reality across the sport. What appears lacking most days for the Nationals is something they had in spades last season: energy.
They look flat. Still. Earlier in the season, Martinez said they appeared to not be having fun. That remains the case after dropping yet another three-game series over the weekend. The Nationals have lost seven of 10. Their problems are spread out: the back half of the starting rotation is ineffective; the bullpen is limited; outside of Trea Turner and Juan Soto, the offense is lacking. Combined, they appear a team more on the middling 2018 course than the revelatory 2019 one.
“We have a lot of the core leaders and veterans back from last year,” Sean Doolittle said. “This team never panicked. We never panicked last year, even when we were 19-31 and all that stuff in May. As rough as things are right now, guys aren’t panicking. Guys are continuing to come every day committed to their routines, and ready to work every single day. I think guys have handled all of the challenges of this season -- the unique circumstances we’re all dealing with -- I think guys have handled them in a really professional way and continue to go about their business.”
Eight games come this week against National League East Division teams. First, three in Philadelphia. Then four in Atlanta, which includes a double-header Friday. September is loaded with games against divisional teams. Of the remaining 29 games, 25 are against the NL East.
Which, again, circles back to the possibilities yet to be derailed by poor play. The Nationals are just six games out of first place in the division. Their not-out-of-it position is just another wonky layer in this bizarre season. In a 162-game season, the Nationals would be 32-51 with a for sale sign out front of Nationals Park as the trade deadline approached. Yet, they are in touch with a stunted rotation and dissipating lineup depth.
“These guys get it,” Martinez said. “They understand we’ve been here before, but we only have a month left. Not by any means are we out of it. They know that. Like I said, we just got to get on a stretch here where we win two out of three games, win three out of four games, then go from there. Focus on the here and now. Focus on today.”
“Today” shows a team 25th in offensive fWAR despite Turner and Soto being tied for the major-league lead in average. The pitching staff is 17th in fWAR. The team’s run differential is better than seven teams with a better winning percentage. That’s strange, and reflective of generally bad baseball as opposed to a severe talent gap.
They have four weeks to go. The trade deadline is Monday at 4 p.m. A lightning-bolt move is not expected. The batch on hand will have to dig them out or head home defeated, hoping next year is normal, with fans, a full schedule, a clearance of the residue from 2020. Because this is not sufficient the year after winning the World Series, all injuries and madness aside.