Where are the Nationals heading?

It’s a familiar feeling for Nationals fans today after two straight losses in games that could have been wins. Runners on the corners nobody out, fail to score a run. On Tuesday, put a crooked number on the board and fail to get that shutdown inning. See the deficit go from one to three to five as the bats fall silent. Season momentum shifting win on April 16th against the Mets, and then again on June 24th against the Phillies, then again on July 5th with a nine-run comeback against the Marlins. Games you circle on your calendar as the turnaround in the season but that ignite little more than a flicker. Failing to capitalize on these momentum shifts is why the Nationals are where they are today. Their 10-18 record in one-run games is awful. Failing to take the baton and run with it. Rinse. Repeat.

It’s a feeling Nationals fans have experienced in 2018. But it’s also one we saw in the postseason in 2012 and 2014 and again with another manager in 2016 and 2017. It’s a feeling of helplessness and disbelief as the fire is extinguished and the outs remaining tick down to zero. The feeling returns when we see the slumped shoulders in the dugout and the distant stares and the pointless hacking at outside fastballs that yield nothing but air.

Over the last six years, fans have seen this story play out time and time again, and the 2018 season has been an embodiment of what the Nationals postseason woes would look like over a 162 game stretch. Lack of clutch hitting, or even hitting in general. Sometimes a shaky bullpen that can’t keep games close, especially in extra innings. Injuries to key players. Blank stares as fans and players wonder alike “What the hell happened to this team?” And at the end of the day they leave you wondering “what if?”

Though the season isn’t over, Sunday’s loss might have been the beginning of the end of the Nationals stretch of NL domination over the past 6 years. The window that some refer to is not closed completely. While the Bryce Harper era of Nationals baseball could be ending, the Juan Soto era seems to be just beginning.

Ken Rosenthal reported earlier in the week that unless the Nationals won three of four against the Marlins this week that they would become sellers instead of buyers at the trade deadline for the first time since 2011. It’s starting to look like 2018 won’t be their season, but you never know as the Phillies and Braves have not run away with the NL East.

By the time the ninth inning rolled around in Miami on Sunday, that uneasy feeling was back in full force. Looking up at a five-run deficit with one hit on the board and just a handful of base runners all game against the bottom-dwelling Marlins, it seemed like the fight was out of the team. The players knew the importance of the game and manager Dave Martinez discussed it in his post-game media session.

“We have to come out and play like it’s the last game of the season,’ Martinez said after Sunday’s loss. “And play to win.”

In the ninth inning, the MASN cameras panned to Ryan Zimmerman, the longtime face of the franchise, the final remnant of the dark ages of Nationals baseball. Zimmerman looked less than happy. He’s a player who knows his best baseball years are behind him, as Jayson Werth learned the year prior. The camera panned to Max Scherzer, the big ticket free agent pitcher who was supposed to propel the Nationals to the World Series in 2015. It panned to Adam Eaton, who was supposed to be the final missing piece after 2016 but he lost his season to a devastating knee injury in late-April and that carried over into ankle trouble in 2018. The camera caught Dave Martinez, the new skipper who was supposed to bring sabermetrics and statistical analysis to DC.

A game against the Marlins in July isn’t supposed to be this important to one of the best teams in baseball over the last six years. Yet the game’s outcome might have influenced the direction of the franchise for the years to come. You could tell from the looks on the player’s faces that this game was important because it had a different look from the ugly underachieving losses a month ago when you heard there was plenty of time remaining in the season. Now there is little time left to make a move. The team is back under the .500 mark, again. The margin of error is slim.

Watching those final few innings today, the feeling was back. Maybe stronger than ever before, if less drastic in effect. Each time the Nationals suffered a heartbreaking loss in the postseason, there was always next year. Next year they’d be back with another shot to win it all. Next year they’d fix the weak spots, shore up the bullpen, finally get that elusive Game 5 win.

This 2018 team was supposed to be the Nationals last best shot at the World Series. Instead, it echoes the familiar story of their postseason woes. With the Philadelphia Phillies and Atlanta Braves on the rise in the division and key players like Bryce Harper and Daniel Murphy likely leaving for free agency this winter, the days of division domination are over for this year.

It still remains to be seen if the rumors of selling are true and to what extent the Nationals will be selling. But what remains certain is that the Nationals went down quietly on Sunday with emotions heavy in the Miami air.

If this was indeed the end of an era, it ended in a familiar way. With a lack of clutch hitting. With a bullpen unable to keep the game close. With a team that had the same look in their eyes as in 2012, 2014, 2016 and 2017. It ended with “what ifs” and blank stares and questions about the future.

About Michael Daalder

Northwestern University Class of 2021, writing about all things Nationals for Talk Nats, The Medium and ROBaseball.com. Twitter: @Michael_Daalder
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