WASHINGTON—Even D.C.’s deftest political spinners would have to smile at Bryce Harper’s take on his team’s current state of affairs.
Five straight losses (and 15 in their last 19 games) have dropped the Nationals below .500. By the time Wednesday’s 3-0 matinee defeat ended, their home park was populated mostly by Boston fans, with the home faithful long ago headed to the pool or barbeques.
July 4 is typically a litmus test for where a team will finish. This Independence Day finds the Nationals below .500 (42-43), seven games behind National League East leader Atlanta, with a full team meeting scheduled for Thursday after an impromptu postgame pep talk Wednesday.
So, Bryce, what’s the mood?
“I’ve never been in this position before. It’s an exciting time for us,” Harper said. “In years past, we’ve won the division by a lot of games. To be able to be behind, I’m excited to get out and taste it.”
In Supreme Court parlance, that would be a dissenting argument. There was little sense of optimism elsewhere in the home clubhouse, not after a team picked by many to win the World Series went down so feebly. Washington went a combined 3 for 19 with runners in scoring position in Boston’s three-game sweep, and the only two runs the Red Sox needed Wednesday scored thanks to a throwing error and a wild pitch.
Every team endures rough stretches during a 162-game season, but many of the Nationals’ woes seem self-inflicted. Imagine where they’d be without dazzling rookie Juan Soto, the steadiness of Anthony Rendon and Scherzer’s often-unrewarded brilliance.
“When you’re going bad and going good, things are perceived differently,” shortstop Trea Turner said. “When you’re going good, a five-run deficit doesn’t seem like anything. Two runs can seem like 10 when you’re going bad.”
It’s certainly the latter case at the moment. Max Scherzer, arguably baseball’s best starting pitcher, is 0-4 in his last five starts despite a 2.73 ERA in that span. Harper, who hopes to cash in royally in free agency after the season, went 0 for 4 with two strikeouts Wednesday to drop his average to .215. He has admitted that he’s uncharacteristically chasing pitches outside the strike zone in frustration.
And starting pitcher Erick Fedde joined Washington’s extensive injury list Wednesday when he left with shoulder stiffness after facing one batter in the second inning. Matt Grace threw four scoreless innings on short notice, but the bullpen faltered and the Red Sox exploited it, as you’d expect from the team with baseball’s best record (59-29).
“I can’t hit for them, but I’m with them,” said rookie Nationals manager Dave Martinez, whose handling of his overworked bullpen has drawn some criticism. “I go home and think about how to fix this. We’ve got to shake out of this.”
The Nationals have a chance to turn things around, thanks to a forgiving upcoming schedule (series against sub-.500 opponents Miami, Pittsburgh and the New York Mets) and the hope of some of their walking wounded will return.
Former All-Star Daniel Murphy is working his way into shape after off-season knee surgery. Stephen Strasburg (shoulder) is scheduled to pitch a simulated game this weekend and hopes to rejoin the team shortly after the All-Star Game, which the Nationals will host July 17. Ryan Zimmerman (oblique) is almost ready for his rehab assignment, and Matt Wieters (hamstring) is hoping to return before the All-Star break.
That’s good news, but these are players with a history of injuries, and expecting big things from them may be a bit optimistic. The Nationals desperately need Harper to catch fire, but they also must resume doing the little things that make the difference in games like Wednesday’s.
“We’re gonna be alright,” Grace said. “It’s just a matter of when, and it’s gonna happen quick. I don’t think there’s anyone in this room that thinks otherwise.”
For their sake, it had better. Otherwise, Harper may not have as much fun as he hopes.