In this space, exactly two weeks ago, we were all ready to write about the most important series for the Washington Nationals all season – a road trip against a moribund NL East team that the Nats should run roughshod, on its way back from pennant race purgatory and back toward the perch of their division.
It’s a good thing we waited a fortnight, as another four-game series away from Nationals Park has superseded their four-game tilt with the New York Mets that occurred right before the All-Star Break, as Washington is in southern Florida this evening for the start of a four-game set against the Miami Marlins, their last full series before the non-waiver trade deadline in Major League Baseball on Tuesday July 31.
As dire as the Nationals’ situation was two weeks ago against the Mets, in which they arrived in Queens with a .500 record (47-47) and 5.5 games back of the Philadelphia Phillies and Atlanta Braves for first place in the division, Washington finds itself under .500 going into tonight (50-51) and even further back in the division (seven games behind Philadelphia for first place).
Raising the urgency level of this series in Miami is coming face-to-face with the impending trade deadline, with the decision the Nationals’ front office has to make between being buyers or sellers having to come almost immediately after the series.
Given that the Nationals, 8-12 in the month of July, have a sizable deficit to come back from to land itself in the postseason, signs are quickly pointing to become sellers – including, almost blasphemously, putting Bryce Harper on the market to see what it could possibly fetch now as opposed to seeing him walk in free agency at the end of the year.
However, general manager Mike Rizzo sees the deficit, given recent pennant chase history, as is not as alarmed as the team’s faithful might be at the moment.
“I look at recent division winners that have dug themselves out of big holes like we’re in right now at this time of the year,” Rizzo said on an appearance on 106.7 the FAN. “The 2017 Cubs were two games under .500 after the All-Star Break, at 5.5 games back, the Dodgers in ‘16 were 6.5 back, the Rangers in ‘15 were six back, the A’s in 2012 were nine games back and the Twins in ‘06 were 11 games back after the All-Star Break and came back and won their divisions, and that’s not counting the ‘15 Cubs, and ‘14 Royals, and ‘07 Rockies that were anywhere from 5.5 to eight games out and went to the World Series that year.”
As impressive as Rizzo’s memory is, his team’s memory needs to be very short over the next four games.
Max Scherzer starts tonight, possibly jump-starting the team on its way to winning at least three of the four games in the series, which is a must against a team that is 15 games under .500 in Miami.
Tonight’s start by Scherzer comes in a similar situation as another Scherzer start last season in Miami, when a near no-hitter turned into disaster for the Nationals in the eighth inning on June 21, 2017. Scherzer allowed his first hit, an infield single by backup catcher A.J. Ellis, then allowed two unearned runs after an Adam Lind error at first base as the Marlins earned a 2-1 victory. That game almost symbolized the Nationals’ 2017 season, one that resulted with the team out of the postseason and Dusty Baker out of a job as manager.
Tonight marks a second chance in Miami, but might also mark the final chance Washington has in salvaging a 2018 disappointing season before making some tough decisions at the beginning of next week.