“If we were winning, I’m sure the season would’ve been a lot more fun,” Nats shortstop Trea Turner told MASN. “But all the things we had to deal with, and how the season went for us on the field as well, it was just tough to come to the ballpark and be positive. You’re kind of faking it and being positive. Last year, you could see it wasn’t something we had to try to do. It was just fun. This year, we had to try to have fun, and it’s hard to recreate that.”
By Michael Grimm
The Nats Long National Nightmare is over, with excuses to President Gerald Ford, who uttered those words after pardoning Richard Nixon 46 years ago.
The Nats roster was ravaged by injuries. Seventeen players in total spent time on the injured list, one of them (Sean Doolittle) twice. Fourteen of those players ended the season on the IL.
“I think the COVID part of it, we mastered very, very well,” general manager Mike Rizzo said. “It was the start-stop-restart of spring training and the early season that kind of bit us with our veteran lineup.”
Injuries undoubtedly played a huge role in the Nationals’ disappointing, 26-34 record. How could they be expected to contend without Stephen Strasburg, Starlin Castro, Howie Kendrick, Adam Eaton, Tanner Rainey and Doolittle?
But it’s also not fair to blame the team’s season entirely on injuries. Even if healthy, these Nats were going to have a tough time winning enough games to reach the postseason and attempt to defend their title.
The starting rotation crumbled. Yes, they sorely missed Strasburg and Joe Ross, who opted out shortly before camp began. But those who remained did not pitch to the standards they previously set for themselves.
Max Scherzer was the best of the bunch but still not the elite version of himself. Patrick Corbin ranked last in the majors in WHIP at one point. Aníbal Sánchez had a worse two-month stretch than he did to begin the 2019 campaign. Austin Voth was dreadful until a couple of late September gems. Erick Fedde was erratic.
This team has long been built to win behind great starting pitching. Once that group faltered, the domino effect was massive.
“We just couldn’t get starters to go deep in games,” manager Davey Martinez said. “So we had to use (relievers) an awful lot. A lot of guys for four outs, five outs early. And they got taxed.”
Rizzo made a real effort to improve his bullpen after last year’s struggles. And early on, it actually was the strength of this roster. But it couldn’t handle all the extra work forced upon it. Doolittle wasn’t himself and got hurt twice. Will Harris spent time on the IL and never lived up to his three-year contract. Daniel Hudson blew five saves, a few of them in jaw-dropping fashion.
They got MVP-caliber performances from Juan Soto (.351/.490/.695) and Turner (.335/.394/.588,) but got diminished production from returning regulars Eaton and Victor Robles, got disappointing performances from newcomers Castro (who also got hurt) and Eric Thames, and watched as top prospect Carter Kieboom failed to seize his opportunity to play every day.
“I really feel horrible for the guys,” Martinez said. “They earned every bit of that. And I always tell them: Look, 2021 is coming. There will be baseball. Hopefully, there will be fans. And these fans won’t forget. We’re world champs, and nobody’s ever going to take that away from us.”