DETROIT — The trade deadline came and went Wednesday afternoon and the Washington Nationals’ roster, talent-filled but largely underperforming, remained the same. But the day was far from quiet.
The morning brought with it reflection, a moment of self-evaluation, and perhaps resignation. As he talked about the Nationals’ need for prudence at the deadline, manager Davey Johnson spoke mostly of the future. Of a young organization still growing.
“I don’t regret saying, ‘World Series or bust,’” he said, in reference to the slogan he dropped on his team eight months ago that has evolved into mostly just a marker upon which to measure its underachievement.
“It looks more like bust, but this is my last go-around anyway. I want to do what’s best for the organization.”
The evening came with another cold reality, another embarrassing defeat, and four months of frustrations bubbling over.
After an 11-1 kick to the teeth by the Detroit Tigers on Wednesday, the Nationals had played 18 innings at Comerica Park and scored only twice. They needed seven pitchers to get through the two-game series, left 15 runners on base and went 2 for 17 with runners in scoring position. They fell to 52-56 as they scored one run or fewer for the 30th time in 108 games and lost by five runs or more for the 15th time.
“We just got our [butts] kicked for two games,” said outfielder Bryce Harper, who left the game after a hip spasm but said he would be fine. “You’ve got to have heart. That’s the biggest thing right now. You’ve got to play as a family, and everybody’s got to want it, starting with the manager on down to everybody.
“We need to get going and play better, hit better, have better [at-bats] in certain situations and pitch better also. We play the Braves nine [more] games. This [stuff] ain’t over.”
At age 20, Harper is the Nationals’ youngest, but most prominent, player. Since he arrived in the major leagues in 2012, he’s worked to toe the line and keep his comments in check, in deference to the more veteran players on the team.
Asked if he felt the Nationals were lacking that heart, Harper was honest.
“I mean, absolutely,” he said. “I’m not the one to speak on it. I try to be a leader, but I’m younger. I think there’s things that we can do better, and I think everybody knows that. We’re a better team than we’re showing right now.”
The Nationals were competitive with the AL Central-leading Tigers for about six innings in the series. Given their anemic and inconsistent offense, a grand slam off Stephen Strasburg sealed Tuesday’s game, and 10 runs off Gio Gonzalez sealed Wednesday’s.
They fell 10 1/2 games behind the Atlanta Braves and 7 1/2 games back of the second wild card.
“[Frustration] was two months ago,” said first baseman Adam LaRoche, who is now 14 for 88 in the month of July (.159) and struck out three times with runners on base Wednesday.
“We were scratching our heads two months ago trying to figure out what was going on. We find it for a couple days and then it’s gone. It’s a group effort. We’re all in this together. Fight to the end, see what happens, but stretches like these last two get pretty old.”
In discussing their strategy leading up to the trade deadline, Johnson and Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo — who was not made available for comment after the deadline passed — delivered similar messages. They stressed their belief in the talent already on their roster, and the desire for that talent to rise to the level they expected. Both pointed to the Los Angeles Dodgers’ turnaround this season as a reason for hope.
The Dodgers, who won 27 of 33 games to go from last in the National League West to first, underwent a historic run that featured the best stretch since the team moved to Los Angeles. For the Nationals to win 90 games, the number Johnson deemed a baseline for playoff teams, they would need to go 38-16 from here out.
“When the trade deadline comes around, you cause whatever’s going to happen,” LaRoche said. “Typically if you’re playing well and you’re in the hunt, you’ll fill some holes. If you’re down and out, chance to get rid of some guys. I think we kind of sat there right in the middle knowing that this team’s good enough to get it done and just isn’t doing it.”
The Nationals reached the proverbial fork in the road on deadline day and their season continued to careen down the tracks, at risk of falling at any moment. The silence that drenched their clubhouse was deafening, but the words of their players spoke louder. Their inaction at the deadline left them to figure out their issues in-house.
“We just need to be a family again,” said Harper. “That’s the biggest thing. It all starts with having good camaraderie in the clubhouse, having an upbeat clubhouse every single day, having an upbeat manager and staff every single day, no matter what.
“We’ve got two more months of baseball, and if we play like we’re capable, we will win this. We will do it. I know that for a fact, because we’ve got a great team, a great organization and we have guys on this team that are unbelievable. We need to keep going, keep grinding and do the things that we need to do. … We’ve got to play these last two months like we’ll never play this game again.”