Right now, the Washington Nationals are a very dangerous team. We just don’t know to whom yet — themselves or others.
With a healthy Max Scherzer back in a week or even two, they could be dangerous to Atlanta in the National League East or to anybody they might play in October. For 11 weeks, they have played as well as they can, bullpen excepted, and better than anybody except the Los Angeles Dodgers and Cleveland Indians.
But, if Scherzer, who has already been on the injured list twice since his last win July 6, can’t get his hard-used body in top working order, this team may be burnt toast in a hurry. Each day, Scherzer pushes a bit harder — he threw a simulated game Tuesday — then awaits the response from his back when he wakes up.
“We want to be sure he’s 100 percent,” Manager Dave Martinez said. That would be in contrast to the Nats’ method in July — listening to Scherzer and living on Max Time, which has always been “I’m ready yesterday.” At 35, those days may be past.
How long can the Nats last without him? They have already done better — 18-13 since his last win — than many, including me, assumed. Even now, as the bullpen turns more late innings into slasher flicks, the Nats keep playing fundamentally sound baseball — by comparison with 2018’s blunder circus. Since May 23, they’ve gone 45-24, the second-best record in the NL, and have clubbed foes by 90 runs.
If this version of the Nats, with Scherzer back, ever got to October, some might be tempted to ask Ted Leonsis whether he is taking sleazy pro sports “proposition bets” yet.
How have the Nats done it? It’s a shock. With a bench of oldsters that almost nobody else in Major League Baseball wanted. With scorned relievers picked up at the trade deadline for used wads of bubble gum. And with a couple of slow-to-mature starters, Erick Fedde and Joe Ross, who have been bad-mouthed plenty but who are 5-0 in August with a 0.90 ERA while plugging that huge, scary Max Maw — for now.
The Nats are now a home for old folks and no-longer-shiny prospect pitchers — thank goodness. Until Scherzer returns from his latest injuries, which have gone from “days” to “weeks,” this wiggly, dancing gang is carrying the season.
The Nats hoped to build a team identity, with chemistry and accountability, for the post-Bryce Harper era. They have. But it’s sure not like any other team. The Nats are a throwback, close-knit team with a few young stars surrounded by 16 players who are 30 or older, many of whom are glad to have a job. “Just happy to be back. Crazy game,” said Javy Guerra, who was designated for assignment to make room for the new relievers, then brought back to the team just days later.
Many Nats wonder who will want them next year. Even Adam Eaton doesn’t know whether his $9.5 million option for 2020 will be picked up.
Instead of anxiety, this has been a bonding force so far. Perhaps many vets have nice bank accounts intact and just relish their last years in a sport that’s constantly trying to slip them the pirates’ fatal black spot.
This week, Howie Kendrick came off the injured list and on his first swing drilled a line drive off the right field wall for his 1,686th hit. Earlier Monday night, the newest Nats pickup, Asdrúbal Cabrera, doubled for his 1,611th hit, then scored on a single by Gerardo Parra, who has 1,301 knocks. Catcher Kurt Suzuki, who helped Fedde through six innings, has 1,300. That’s 5,898 career hits for those four men.
“That’s wild,” Trea Turner said. “That’s what a lot of teams are missing because the game has been weeding out those [over-30] players.
“They’ve brought so much — fun, personality. They have produced greatly in big situations. If we hadn’t gotten Parra [in early May], I don’t know if we’d still be in the race now. Every team could use multiple veteran guys with high baseball IQs. They can teach. They just have so much value for us.”
Believe it. Kendrick and Parra, plus Suzuki and first baseman Matt Adams, who were backups on Opening Day, have combined for 48 homers and 171 RBI in 834 at-bats. How dazzling and unexpected is that? The Nats’ biggest stars, Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto, have 50 homers and 168 RBI in 787 at-bats.
“For me, we don’t have ‘bench players.’ We have ‘role players’ . . . and they play very important roles for us,” said Martinez (1,599 hits), who filled similar roles. “Looking down the bench at those guys in the late innings is very comforting.”
(Psst, don’t say “bench.”)
Just a half-dozen years ago, contending teams were assumed to be in search of vets like these Nats, guys who could handle pennant-race pressure, teach kids and exude the sense that big-tension games can also be big fun.
Now nobody wants them. They don’t want to pay them. Or they get disgusted and release them when they fail so young players making peanuts can be “developed” in accord with analytics doctrine. So Nats GM Mike Rizzo takes them in. Sometimes for free, like “Baby Shark” Parra and Cabrera, whose salaries are paid by former clubs. Another such player, reliever Greg Holland, just arrived in the minors. After Sept. 1, he may be up. Look for Jeremy Hellickson then, too.
Rizzo doesn’t just grab freebies. He trades for the Almost Free. Two weeks ago, he traded for three 30-or-older relievers, who can all still touch 97 or 98 mph, in deals for minor league warm bodies. Daniel Hudson, who once won 16 games as a starter (two Tommy John surgeries ago) and Hunter Strickland have given the bullpen depth and, so far, only two runs allowed in 11⅔ innings.
Will Martinez develop confidence in one of them — anybody, please — to work in three-run-save situations so Sean Doolittle, who is running on fumes (eight runs and four homers in his past eight games) won’t get worn out or blown out?
If it turns out to be Daniel, who got the last four outs for a save in the Nats’ 3-1 victory over the Reds on Tuesday night, that would be appropriate for the 2019 Nats. “This is my sixth locker room in three years,” he said. “I’m trying to learn everybody’s name. I just finished learning ’em all in Toronto.”
Oh, sorry, my mistake — his last name is Hudson; his first name is Daniel.
If this bizarre, bouncy bunch, plus an intact Mad Max, can stay in one elderly piece for a few more weeks, this could be a heck of a heartwarming October tale.
Otherwise — creepy door to haunted attic creaks — don’t ask.