Game #120 The straw that broke the camel’s back!

The Nationals had a Spring Training that is now the brunt of jokes about camel humps, and dromedary poop. Many cultures used camels for the transport of people and carrying goods like straw that was harvested. From that became the idiom about the straw that broke the camel’s back which alluded to the proverb “it is the last straw that breaks the camel’s back” and that is the irony as each loss piled up on that camel until it broke. Every season, there are 20 teams that are eliminated from making the post-season and the last straw is when they are officially eliminated, but along the way the weight of those straws are not all equal. This gives rise to the phrase “the last straw” or “the final straw” which many times is used when someone is fired from their job, a divorce, a separation, and other unpleasant finalities.

The Nationals have lost two games in a row in excruciating ways that both ended on walk-off home runs. The Nationals begin today at 7.0 games out of 1st place. While Fangraphs still has the Nationals chance of making the postseason at around 30%, that would be bad odds if your doctor told you that was your chance of beating a disease. While ownership and general manager Mike Rizzo did not go into full sell-mode two weeks ago, the team is in more dire straits today compared to where they were at the non-waiver trade deadline on July 31st.

With Brandon Kintzler and Shawn Kelley already traded, that leaves 10 other pending free agents. Some have no value like Joaquin Benoit and Matt Wieters as trade assets, and others would not bring back any value. Rizzo could place all of them on waivers and if they are claimed just give them away as the claiming team is then automatically responsible for their remaining salary. It’s like assuming someone’s mortgage when you buy their home. What teams want to do is take the Nationals player in a trade like the A’s did with Shawn Kelley and give up a bag of balls or International Signing money and just assume the player’s minimal salary.

What a team usually does is put up a lesser player who is claimed then work-out a larger deal. Sources tell us as we reported this morning that any trades or the notion of selling would have to be approved from team owner Mark Lerner, and there is no indication — yet — that any orders to liquidate have been given. Well, two weeks ago Mr. Lerner wrote to the fans that the Nats were not selling and were going for it! That was a choice, and probably the wrong choice depending on your perspective.

So here we are, players will play for pride and some for future contracts like Bryce Harper. With the slimmest of odds to make it to the post-season, reality sets in while hoping that the two teams ahead of them collapse. Those two teams are playing free and easy and injury-free. They seem so lucky that you have to wonder how it happened. Almost every trade the Braves made the past few years brought back riches while the Nationals trades depleted their pitching prospects with little to show for it. The Phillies are led by rookie manager Gabe Kapler who was branded as the village idiot during the first few days of the season, and now looks like he should win Manager of the Year.

If the Nationals improved anywhere, it would be with their defensive analytics which look much better. But so much else has been worse than prior years. They were hit by the injury bug and two months of poor starting pitching in June and July, and star players who have slumped badly at times. The Braves on the other hand have a middle of the order that hasn’t slumped all year led by Freddie Freeman and Nick Markakis. For the Phillies, they have done it with great starting pitching and a lot of timely hitting.

One common denominator between the Braves and Cubs is youthful enthusiasm. Some analysts feel you need those grizzled veterans with post-season experience and each team has a few players like that, but following the lead of recent World Champs like the Houston Astros, Kansas City Royals, and Chicago Cubs, sometimes you just need that belief that you can win with some youthful exuberance and high energy.  That seems to be the Nationals problem for so many years that they play to the veterans like Jayson Werth last year and this year sticking too long with playing Ryan Zimmerman when he was batting .184 in April in the middle of the line-up — and yes, April games count too.

“I don’t know what else to do,” Dave Martinez said.

Maybe this season could be described as the year of the undisclosed injuries. Be it Ryan Madson on Sunday, Kelvin Herrera the week before and Zimmerman in April. Players who stayed in the line-up or in the bullpen when they were hurting and can’t perform hurt their team. The Jon Heyman article that claimed Ryan Zimmerman was indeed hurt during spring training made too much sense then and that beat writer who declared “Zimmerman is fine” well, he was not and that .184 batting average and dozens of runners he stranded in April was all part and parcel of that slow and disastrous start where the team went 11-16 in the month of April and whether you believe Gio Gonzalez and Tanner Roark were hurt or hurting during the month of June when the team went an horrific 9-16 all you have to do is look at how poorly they were throwing the baseball and how good they have looked after getting some much needed rest over the All-Star break. Gio Gonzalez had that 8.44 ERA in June and Roark had that 6.08. It’s tough to win ballgames with those ERAs on the mound.

Other teams have gamed the system to rest up starters. The Nationals go in the opposite direction. They push them to go more, and put the bullpen on standby. While nobody can ever prove the cause and effect of that or pushing Gio Gonzalez in May to four consecutive starts of 110+ pitches or Tanner Roark to a 117 pitch start in mid-May as the cause, the results sure were ugly afterwards. The bullpen didn’t need to blow any leads then as they were usually called to the aisle for mop-up for those losses.

So here we are trying to make up for lost time and the holes dug in April and June seem too deep to pull out of. Yes it’s possible but improbable when you have to leapfrog two teams — not just one. Ryan Zimmerman is now carrying the offense recently and certainly was the most impactful Nats player in Saturday’s win along with Tanner Roark. With Zim, this is what manager Dave Martinez has needed. He is a manager that plays the law of averages that says if you play long enough a struggling player will progress to their mean. It usually works that way, but not always. You can’t make up for past failures as we have seen with Bryce Harper and others who were failing on a daily basis.

Of course you win and lose as a team and no individual player should take on the burden of a loss, but it is selfish to your team when you are playing hurt.

Tonight is another game in St. Louis. Gio Gonalez for the Nationals and righty John Gant for the Cardinals.

Official: The Nationals have recalled RHP Trevor Gott and selected the contract of LHP Tim Collins. Additionally, they have optioned LHP Sammy Solis to Triple-A Syracuse, placed Ryan Madson on the 10-day DL and transferred RHP Erick Fedde to the 60-day DL.

Washington Nationals vs. St. Louis Cardinals
Stadium:  Busch Stadium, St. Louis, Missouri
1st Pitch: 8:15 pm EDT
TV:  MASN2; MLB.TV app out-of-network
Nats Radio: 106.7 The Fan and via the MLB app

Line-ups subject to change without notice:

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