Nothing has gone right for the Washington Nationals since winning the 2019 World Series.
Bad enough that they collapsed last year under the strains of a season abbreviated to 60 games because of the coronavirus, but when COVID-19 hit the clubhouse before the current season began, the Nationals had their first four games postponed, and then opened 1-5.
Last year, the club started 1-4, won its next three games and then never reached .500 again, finishing 26-34 and in last place of the National League East.
The plummet from 93 wins and a Wild Card berth in 2019 was punctuated by no fans in the stands and no official ring ceremony to celebrate winning their first World Series, in seven games over the Houston Astros.
Upon returning to play last week, after the first four games were postponed, 5,000 people were allowed in 41,313-seat Nationals Park, and just a short cab ride away, the Capitol building was still surrounded by fences and protected by gun-wielding members of the National Guard in the aftermath of the Jan. 6 riot.
The troops are scheduled to remain deployed there at least through May 23.
To add insult to injury, the Nationals were visitors at Dodger Stadium Friday for the home opener of the now-defending World Series champions, who received their ornate rings worth $50,000 each during a lavish and lengthy ceremony prior to the 1-0 Washington loss.
The irony of it all didn’t escape Washington manager Davey Martinez, who agreed that the club felt cheated it never experienced that thrill.
“Yeah, honestly we kind of feel that way,” he said. “All in all, the memories are still the same for us. We won the World Series championship in 2019. No one can ever take that away from us, so I tell the guys, ‘Let’s just try to go out and win another one.’”
It turned out to be another lost weekend for the Nationals, who dropped the three games and scored just five runs. They were shut out by Walker Buehler on Friday and Clayton Kershaw on Sunday, both starters backed up by flawless Dodgers relief pitching.
A 5-2 Nationals win Monday in St. Louis didn’t stop the downward trend as the the Cardinals beat them by 11 runs Tuesday, dropping their record to 2-6. Meanwhile, nine players who were on the COVID restricted list came back in drips and drabs, eight of them having now returned, including Patrick Corbin, Kyle Schwarber, Josh Harrison and Josh Bell. Pitcher Jon Lester is expected to be activated soon.
It’s like starting over, particularly for the pitchers. Corbin struggled in a 9-5 loss on Saturday, walking his first three batters in a five-run second inning.
“His location was off, but he wasn’t missing by too much,” Martinez said about Corbin. “It was his first time back on the mound competing for about two weeks, so we’ve just got to get him built up.”
Lester, who was signed as a free agent for $5 million in the off-season, made only three starts during spring training because of various ailments, the last reaching 4 1/3 innings on March 28. Lester won’t be thrown right back into action, Martinez said.
“For me with him we’re going to have to get him built back up, too,” the manager said. “We’ll have him throw a couple of bullpens, a couple of sim games, whatever he needs to get ready to go.”
The Nationals opened the season with a payroll of $177.3 million, well below the $210 million luxury tax threshold.
COVID-19 then spread through the team after spring training ended, when a player who boarded a team flight tested positive. It caused the postponement of the three-game season-opening home series against the New York Mets, plus a single game against the Atlanta Braves.
“It’s been a little difficult, missing key pieces of our team,” Martinez said. “What I do like is that we’ve lost some tough ballgames, but we’ve been in every game. That’s a testament to these guys and how hard they’re working and how hard they’re playing. We’ll start winning some of those one-run, two-run games. I’m sure of that, but I’m proud of the way the guys have been going about their business.”
Just like last year, when the Nationals stumbled out of spring training 2.0 sans exhibition games, the Nationals found themselves at another disadvantage. Actually, this is the third consecutive season the Nationals have emerged slowly out of the gate. They were 19-31 on May 22, 2019, before turning it around to finish 93-69.
At the time, fans and pundits were calling for the head of Martinez. That all changed when his club won 72 of its final 111 games and ultimately the World Series.
COVID-19 then stopped spring training, and all professional sports, in its tracks on March 12, 2020, delaying the Major League season for four months.
The Nationals have yet to gain any traction.
“It’s been tough,” Martinez said. “You have to remember, in 2019 we won the World Series, and these guys pitched a lot. They go to spring training and start getting ramped up, getting ready for the season. The season then halted because of the pandemic, which we’re still in right now. They definitely had a slow start. They didn’t know if they were going to play or not.”
This year, COVID-19 hit the Nationals, in particular. It’s been one thing after another.
“I’m not worried about these guys,” Martinez said. “They’re not going to quit. They’re going to compete at the highest level every day. My biggest concern is keeping them healthy and making sure we do things the right way.”