WASHINGTON—Mixed messages are as common in this town as traffic jams. So maybe it’s not surprising that the Nationals’ front office and their remaining players aren’t exactly on the same page.
A day after general manager Mike Rizzo effectively waved the white flag on an excruciating season six weeks early, the Nationals acted like a team that considers itself an ongoing concern. Their 8-7 walk-off victory over the Philadelphia Phillies suggests that maybe, somehow, they are.
Long before Ryan Zimmerman’s dramatic two-out, two-run home run, the Nats trotted out their fragile $175 million pitcher, Stephen Strasburg, without the benefit of a minor-league rehab start since he last worked more than a month ago.
Strasburg hit 96 mph on the radar gun in the first inning, but understandably lacked command. He allowed two home runs and needed 84 pitches to escape four innings tied 5-5.
Of greater concern, his velocity declined as the night progressed. That made observers wonder if he’d aggravated the pinched nerve in his neck that landed him on the disabled list—or the shoulder tightness that interrupted his season in the spring.
"They asked me if I wanted a rehab assignment, but I told them, 'This is the point of no return,' " Strasburg said after the game. "If you feel good enough to go, you go."
It smacked of desperation. And it made little sense given that the Nationals essentially gave away two of their key players (former All-Star second baseman Daniel Murphy and power-hitting part-time first baseman Matt Adams) barely 24 hours earlier. Both will be free agents after the season and weren’t likely to return to D.C., but Rizzo got little more than a box of Cracker Jack in return.
Those transactions suggest the Nationals (64-63) were conceding that they won’t catch fire over the next month and make up their seven-game deficit to Atlanta in the National League East—or overtake five of the six clubs (including the Phillies) ahead of them in the NL wild card race.
That’s a logical admission, given Washington’s season full of injuries, inconsistency and bullpen issues. But the players aren’t about to quit.
Strasburg has managed to avoid the disabled list in just two of his eight pro seasons. The Nationals may have to hold their breath until Thursday to see how Strasburg feels. If there’s even the hint of more issues, they have far more reason to shut him down now than they did in 2012, when they controversially limited his innings (and held him out of the postseason) a year after Tommy John surgery.
You can give Strasburg credit for jeopardizing his season and giving it the old professional try, but the players who seem most energized by the pall hanging over this team are Zimmerman and Bryce Harper.
Zimmerman is the longest-tenured National, the team’s first draft pick after moving to D.C. Harper has surpassed him as the face of the franchise.
Like Murphy and Adams, Harper was placed on waivers (and reportedly claimed by the Los Angeles Dodgers, prompting the Nationals to revoke them). He’ll remain in a Washington uniform for at least the rest of this season, and he seems determined to make the most of it.
Facing a pronounced shift in the first inning Wednesday night, Harper bunted into the vresuscitate ast unoccupied left side of the infield for a hit and later scored on Anthony Rendon’s double. In the third, he doubled home Trea Turner, then tagged up and hustled to third on Rendon’s fly ball to medium center field, eventually scoring on Juan Soto’s single.
Those are not the actions of a man who has given up on the season, or is concerned about keeping himself healthy for free agency. Harper has famously (and correctly) been criticized for occasionally failing to run out ground balls in his career, but he’s demonstrated hustle out of professional pride.
And Wednesday’s three-hit night raised his season average above .250, well below his career .285 mark but a figure that seemed Everest-like at the All-Star break, when he was mired at .215.
Along with Max Scherzer, Strasburg and Harper are two of Washington’s three marquee players. Perhaps, after winning Tuesday’s rain-delayed season opener, the Nationals thought that if their stars could steal Wednesday’s game, Scherzer might deliver a sweep Thursday and resuscitate their faint playoff hopes.
It’s still a long shot, but stranger things have happened.