The remarkable 2019 season is something Nationals fans will never forget.
But that has its drawbacks.
That comeback season — going from 19-31 to World Series champions — has seared itself into the minds of D.C. fans. Along with manifesting itself as joy about how the 2019 Nationals were able to emerge from the cellar to make the postseason and slay their October dragon, the remembrance of 19-31 could also provide false hope.
Through 50 games, the 2022 Nationals are 18-32 after falling to the Mets on Monday night — just one game off that venerated 2019 pace. Most Nationals fans aren’t expecting a 2019-esque turnaround this year, and they probably shouldn’t. As Monday’s 13-5 loss to the Mets showed, these Nationals are much more than one game worse than that 2019 club.
Entering Tuesday night’s slate of games, no team in the majors has as many losses as the Nationals’ 32. Washington is 15 games back of the New York Mets for first in the National League East and 9.5 games back of the final wild card spot. And it’s not even as if the Nationals have been unlucky. Their negative-61 run differential is third-worst in the big leagues and would give them an expected record of — yep, you guessed it — 19-31.
The 2019 Nationals weren’t bad for the entire start of the season. It was mostly an abysmal stretch in May — capped off with a four-game sweep at the hands of the Mets — that saw them fall to 19-31. Sixteen of that team’s 31 losses were either by fewer than three runs or in extra innings. This season, only nine of Washington’s 32 defeats have come by one or two runs.
Furthermore, the most obvious difference between these Nationals and the 2019 club is the fact that this year’s team doesn’t have Anthony Rendon, Max Scherzer or Trea Turner. But even the players who were also on the 2019 team are performing worse than they did that year.
Juan Soto is off to arguably the worst start to a campaign in his career. The 23-year-old superstar is hitting just .236 prior to Tuesday’s game, and his 3-for-39 line with runners in scoring position is why he’s tallied just 16 RBIs in 50 games.
Of course, Soto has been far from bad, as the right fielder leads the team in wins above replacement (1.7) and on-base plus slugging (. 831) while also pacing the majors in walks (41). Nevertheless, his numbers are not nearly what they were last season when he finished second in the NL MVP race, although Soto also started slowly that spring.
“I’m not concerned about him hitting,” Nationals manager Dave Martinez said after Soto seemingly broke out of his two-weeklong slump on Sunday with a homer and a double. “He’s going to hit, and he’s going to drive the ball.”
The biggest drop in performance from 2019 to 2022 is from starting pitcher Patrick Corbin. While the lefty’s recent performances have been encouraging, it doesn’t change the fact that he is far from the type of pitcher he was in 2019. Corbin, the winning pitcher in Game 7 of the 2019 World Series, won 14 games in his first season as a National with a 3.25 earned run average. This season, Corbin has given up the most earned runs of any pitcher in the National League, and his seven losses are tied for second in the majors, behind only teammate Joan Adon’s eight.
“I haven’t looked [at the numbers] once this year,” Corbin said last week. “I’ve been feeling really good. Obviously, I know what my record is, but that’s probably about it. I can just control what I’m able to control.”
Also in the rotation, the most positive development through the first 49 games of the season was the performance of starting pitcher Erick Fedde. But game No. 50 popped that balloon, as the Mets unloaded on Fedde to the tune of eight hits and six runs in 11/3 innings. Fedde’s ERA dropped from 3.55 before Monday to 4.60 after the dismal start.
While false hope isn’t useful, the rest of the 2022 season isn’t hopeless for the rebuilding Nationals. There are reinforcements on the horizon, namely in the form of starting pitcher Stephen Strasburg.
Strasburg, who has started only seven big league games since winning the 2019 World Series MVP award and signing a $245 million contract, is progressing well through his minor league rehab assignment. On Sunday, Strasburg threw five no-hit innings with six strikeouts in Single-A Fredericksburg.
The 33-year-old traveled with Washington to Citi Field and threw a bullpen Tuesday. Martinez said Strasburg’s next start will be Friday with Triple-A Rochester, but the manager isn’t ready to put a “time frame” on the pitcher’s return yet.
“We’re going to let him continue to progress and build up,” Martinez said. “We’ll have conversations with him now throughout, because I’m hoping he’ll be with us after he does throw in these games. And then we’ll talk about where he’s at mentally and physically and go from there.”
• Jacob Calvin Meyer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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