2018 Washington Nationals
2018 Washington Nationals / Franchise: Washington Nationals / BR Team Page
Managed by Dave Martinez
History, Comments, Contributions
The 2018 Washington Nationals were considered a shoo-in to win the National League East division title before the season began, as only the New York mets looked, on paper, to have the talent to rival them. Experts thought that the other three teams in the division were still in reconstruction and unlikely to pose a threat for another year or two, while the Nats were at the top of their success cycle, having won two straight division titles and were returning with pretty much the same cast - although they had a new manager in David Martinez, beginning his first gig as a major league skipper. The question was whether this was finally the year they would get over the playoff hump, after falling at the Division Series hurdle all four times they had reached the postseason.
The season started as expected, with Washington winning its first four games, but they then lost 8 of the next 10 and on April 13th were just at 6-8 and 6 games behind the red-hot Mets, who had started off by winning 11 of their first 12 games. The Mets would quickly collapse, however, but it took more time for the Nationals to set the ship straight. At the end of April, they were in 4th place with a record of 13-16, with the young Philadelphia Phillies and Atlanta Braves both playing much better than expected and ahead of them in the standings. Only ace pitcher Max Scherzer, who had gone 5-1, 1.62 in his first six starts to be named the NL's Pitcher of the Month, was performing at an All-Star level.
Washington won 12 of its first 14 games in May to put itself back in contention. On May 15th, their record had improved to 25-18 and they had moved to within a game of first place. While their pace slowed down somewhat over the rest of the month, they were at 10 games above .500 on May 31st, at 33-23 and had reached a tie for first place. It looked like the natural order of things was assessing itself again. Scherzer continued his domination, going 4-0, 2.21 in May to repeat as Pitcher of the Month. Late in the month, 19-year-old rookie OF Juan Soto was called up after only a few games at AA, injuries forcing the team's hand, and he quickly showed that he was the real deal, winning a permanent spot in the line-up. He would go on to be named the league's Rookie of the Month in June. However, there was some rot visible in the foundation, mostly an underperforming bullpen apart from closer Sean Doolittle, inconsistent production from superstar OF Bryce Harper, and a rash of injuries affecting key players like Adam Eaton, Daniel Murphy, Howie Kendrick and Ryan Zimmerman, all of whom missed significant playing time. The Nats traded for reliever Kelvin Herrera in the middle of June, but the bullpen remained an area of weakness.
The Nats reached 11 games above .500 on June 6th, by which point they had a half-game lead, but then things started to crumble. They lost 7 of 9 and finished June with a terrible record of 9-16, putting them 5 gaves back of the lead, with the Braves and Phillies continuing to play better. They then lost their first three games in July and on July 3d, they were back at .500, with a record of 42-42, and questions were being asked about whether this was just a bad patch, or if the team was really mediocre. They then proceeded to lose their now traditional late-morning Fourth of July game to the Boston Red Sox, 3-0, completing a three-game sweep that put them a game below .500. There were now questions raised about whether the Nats should consider trading Harper, who was due to become a free agent in the fall, given that a postseason appearance was starting to look unlikely. After a players only meeting, their next game, against the Miami Marlins on July 5th, was an epic one. Starting pitcher Jeremy Hellickson gave up 9 runs over the first four innings, but the Nats then staged a great comeback, eventually winning 14-12. Trea Turner hit a pair of homers including his first career grand slam and drove in 8 runs while Matt Adams had four hits in his first game back from a stint on the disabled list.
With the Nats still struggling to play .500 ball as the trading deadline approached at the end of July, things began to get surreal. Turner was involved in a controversy over some old social media posts dating back to his high school days that revealed less than stellar judgment and character, while rumors began to swirl that Washington was seriously entertaining trade offers for Harper, with a deal with the Cleveland Indians apparently close to completion. In the end it did not pan out and GM Mike Rizzo denied there had ever been any intention to trade the superstar outfielder, but no one fully bought that explanation. And left unexplained was why the Nationals had not been more aggressive in addressing some of the team's weaknesses with a tough two-month stretch run looming ahead. It seems that the top brass was just counting on the fact many of their previously injured players were now healthy to push them back into contention. It appeared to work on July 31st, at least, as the Nats set a franchise record for runs in a 25-4 thrashing of the New York Mets. They had a 19-1 lead by the end of the 5th inning in that game, added 6 runs against position player Jose Reyes in the 8th, then some unexpected drama unfolded as reliever Shawn Kelley, tasked to record the final three outs, gave up three runs in the process and became visibly upset, slamming his glove to the ground in a gesture that was seen as disrespectful both by manager Martinez and GM Rizzo. Kelley, who had pitched quite well until then in a supporting role, was handed his walking papers the next day. However, Kelley's ouster did not address the ongoing bullpen problems the team was facing, which were compounded when closer Sean Doolittle, one of the few effective members of the team, had to go on the disabled list in early August. That became egregiously clear on August 12th, when stand-in closer Ryan Madson managed to blow a 3-0 9th-inning lead, built on the back of another outstanding start by Scherzer, by loading the bases and then allowing a two-out, pinch-hit grand slam to rookie David Bote of the Chicago Cubs. "I don't know what else to do," stated an incredulous Dave Martinez after the game. Madson soon joined Doolittle on the DL as the losing continued. A 12-1 loss to the lowly Marlins on August 19th was their 9th in their last 13 games, putting them back below .500 and now seven games out of first place and six and a half from a wild card spot, with time starting to run out.
On August 21st, the Nats all but threw in the towel on the season by getting of two veterans who had been among the team's better players. 2B Daniel Murphy, who was hitting .364 over his last 34 games after missing the start of the season with an injury and getting off to a slow start, went the the Chicago Cubs in return for a minor leaguer, and 1B Matt Adams, one of the team's most consistent hitters all season, was claimed off waivers by the St. Louis Cardinals, his original team; he had 18 homers and 48 RBIs. They had also placed Harper on waivers, but pulled him back when the claiming team, the Los Angeles Dodgers offered only to pick the remainder of his salary and not offer anything in return. The now completely demoralized team immediately followed that with a 32-inning stretch without scoring a run, the longest since the team's move to Washington in 2005, before breaking through with a 15-0 win over the Mets on August 26th.
Awards and Honors
- Jamal Collier: "Determined Nationals eye deep postseason run", mlb.com, March 16, 2018. 
- Jace Evans: "Washington Nationals manager Dave Martinez on bullpen woes: 'I don't know what else to do'", USA Today, August 14, 2018. 
- Steve Gardner: "Nationals may have reached point where their season can't be saved", USA Today Sports, August 19, 2018. 
- Steve Gardner: "Nationals throw in the towel, trade Daniel Murphy to Cubs, Matt Adams to Cardinals", USA Today, August 21, 2018. 
- Bob Nightengale: "Nationals embarrassment: GM Mike Rizzo officially waves the white flag", USA Today, August 21, 2018.