Matt Williams was asked August 16, after the Washington Nationals lost their fourth consecutive game, if the team, then trailing the New York Mets by four-and-a-half games, had reached “rock bottom.”
“We’re still in this hunt here, so no,” the Nationals manager told reporters at his post-game press conference.
The Nationals went on to lose the following two games, and eventually stumbled into September at 66-65, and trailing the Mets by 6.5 games. September 1 presented a bleak situation, but not entirely hopeless. A few hot hitting streaks here, some corrected pitching there, and, somehow, the Nationals might still find a way to eke this once-heralded squad into the playoffs for the third time in four seasons. A relatively easy schedule—four games at home against the moribund Atlanta Braves—kept them scraping along.
It is now hopeless.
Tuesday night’s spectacle, in which the Nationals allowed a 7-1 lead to crater into an 8-7 loss, cemented the worst lessons of their 2015 season. Of course the signing of Max Scherzer would give an already formidable starting pitching staff impossibly high expectations, and few could have predicted that half the regular lineup would miss considerable chunks of the season, but withe season drawing to a close, and the roster nearly complete, the Nationals are finding new ways to drown any chances their fans have of experiencing baseball happiness.
Blake Treinen, a 27-year-old reliever who has shuttled between Nationals Park and the minor leagues this year as he’s struggled to stablize his form, notched the first two outs in the top of the seventh inning last night with the six-run lead still intact. The horror that followed is best encapsulated in a few lines from Barry Svrluga‘s game log:
“…walk, run-scoring single, walk, bases-loaded walk, three-run double, walk, walk, game-tying walk, hard flyout.”
In the span of the final third of the top of the seventh, the Mets evened the score and burned through two more relievers, capped, of course, by Drew Storen, frequently praised by the team, but known best to fans for a string of execrable late- and post-season appearances.
By the time Storen served up a bases-clearing double to the Mets’ Yoenis Cespedes, the shock of a nightmarish inning had given over to something much worse: a sense of dread, that this was somehow inevitable. A six-run lead should be a luxurious cushion, especially one built off a supposedly intimidating opposing starter like Matt Harvey. Not with the Nationals these days. No relief pitcher is a sure thing. No lead is safe.
Have Matt Williams and Drew Storen already bought space for a car dealership or something? What is happening?
— Matt Zapotosky (@mattzap) September 9, 2015
Storen in full playoffs mode now
— Marc Fisher (@mffisher) September 9, 2015
This is nauseating. Why is Storen still out there????
— Ben Harris (@BenHarris_1) September 9, 2015
Bryce Harper, who has finally shucked off his reputation as one of the sport’s most overrated players by posting MVP-worth statistics, called out fans who left Monday’s game, which also featured the Nationals surrendering a lead. Compound the last two games with last week’s blown leads against the hated St. Louis Cardinals, and Washington’s baseball fans suddenly have as many reasons to be hopeful as Washington’s football fans.
As a franchise, the Washington Nationals are devoutly programmatic. Nobody wants schizophrenic managing, but Williams’s inability to recognize some of his players’ deteriorations in the face of elevated pressure was troubling a month ago. Off the field, the team’s promotional department has to attempt to keep people happy. And even there, the Nationals have been struggling. The front office threw unnamed fans under the bus when it tried to explain why Chuck Brown’s “Bustin’ Loose” had been replaced as the home-run celebration song. Later, it tried to gin up enthusiasm for Calvin Coolidge—a middling president whose biographers co-opted his wife’s love of baseball to mask his own indifference—by introducing a mascot that looks more a character from The Sopranos. It nearly distributed a terrifying bobble-head figurine of Jayson Werth.
Professional sports teams are the most lopsided kind of civic trust. Gifted with publicly financed stadiums, we spend six months shoveling gobs more money their way for a whiff of local pride. When it comes to the Nationals, those kinds of results are now very far off. It’s not because of this one game, but it was the harshest lesson.
Sports fandom is rooted in pain and defeat, not glory and victory. Game 5 of the 2012 National League Division Series taught Nationals fans about the suddness of loss. Last year’s 18-inning playoff game was a lesson in exquisite, drawn-out agony. But last night, with fans almost certain that the Nationals would lose their six-run lead, proved that any anticipation of winning has been replaced by an expectation of losing. People who go to any of the 12 remaining home games would be wise to bring a paper bag. Nationals fandom is now a condition of existential dread.