- - Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Brian Lester, 41, of Reston, stood outside the center field entrance at Nationals Park about two hours before the first pitch Tuesday, throwing a tennis ball with one of his sons as they waited for the gates to open.

Mr. Lester had heard just hours earlier that the Nationals had announced the trade of starting second baseman Daniel Murphy, who hit .300 or better in each of his three seasons in the District.

But he didn’t know the Nationals had also dealt slugger Matt Adams — effectively giving up on making the postseason this year.



“I will probably come regardless, but winning makes it more fun,” said Mr. Lester, who brought three of his four children Tuesday for the Phillies game and attends about six games a season.

Fun is in short supply these days for the Nationals, a preseason World Series favorite that won the past two National League East division titles by a combined 28 games.

But trading away two of the team’s stars on Tuesday signaled the club has made the decision to pull the plug on a disappointing 2018 — and Nationals’ management scrambled in the aftermath to put an optimistic spin on the news.

Owner Mark D. Lerner said the Nationals had waited long enough for the current team to get over the hump and it was time “to make decisions that will bolster our roster for next season.”

In an open letter to fans, Mr. Lerner said, “this is not a rebuilding effort. We have a lot of talent on our roster — from seasoned veterans to enthusiastic young guys. And Mike Rizzo and his team will be busy during the offseason making sure we have all of the pieces necessary to come back and be competitive next year.”

“These are tough decisions,” general manager Mike Rizzo said. “We felt this was the best way to facilitate what we are trying to do not only in 2018 but beyond.”

But with the current roster’s ongoing problems with injuries and pitching woes, making the playoffs this season had become extremely unlikely. The underperforming club, with the likes of Cy Young winner Max Scherzer and 2015 MVP Bryce Harper, was 62-63 through Monday and 7.5 games back of first-place Atlanta. The Nationals entered Tuesday’s game against the second-place Phillies (68-56) with seven losses in 10 games and a losing record in August. Washington has just one winning month this year, was 26-26 against teams in its division and has been 12 games under .500 since late May.

Phil Wood, a longtime baseball historian and Mid-Atlantic Sports Network broadcaster, said this season ranks among the most disappointing in Nationals history.

“To me, this season is much like 2013 and 2015 in a sense the expectations were very high,” Wood said. “Things never got rolling. There really hasn’t been a great run at all. The best-laid plans never really jelled.”

Still, Mr. Wood said he wouldn’t look for a huge drop in attendance — even if the Nationals don’t contend down the stretch. The Nationals were averaging 32,069 fans per game before Tuesday — seventh in the National League behind Los Angeles, St. Louis, Chicago, San Francisco, Colorado and Milwaukee. Only four teams in the American League average more this season — New York, Los Angeles, Houston and Boston.

“I would never expect their attendance to drop off (too much). It is a summertime destination. They market the team extremely well,” said Mr. Wood, who grew up in Annandale.

Still, the departure of Murphy and Adams will hurt, fans predicted — and not just on the scoreboard.

Quan Cao, who manages the Declaration Nats Park bar and restaurant two blocks away, worried that an inferior product on the field will hit his bar in the cash register.

“When the Nationals win there is a postgame pop,” he said.

Sales are 25 percent better after a win, he said.

Mr. Cao said his numbers are down so much already that he wondered if they were doing something wrong. Then he spoke to personnel at another restaurant and he was told there were experiencing the same drop.

“We realized everyone else was saying that,” said Mr. Cao, who realizes it could be a quiet October in the Navy Yard neighborhood.

Underperforming veterans and a slew of injuries have kneecapped the Nationals’ playoff hopes, but Tuesday’s fire sale also put a harsh spotlight on first-year manager Dave Martinez, a former Cubs bench coach who took over for the popular Dusty Baker.

Martinez takes some of the blame for the team’s downward spiral. His handling of the bullpen has been questioned by both fans and players. However, he got an unsolicited endorsement Tuesday from a surprising source in Murphy.

“Right man for the job here in D.C.,” Murphy said.

One consolation for many fans Tuesday — future free agent Harper was not traded. Harper was reportedly claimed off revocable waivers by the Dodgers, but the Nationals could not come to terms on a trade with Los Angeles. Because a deal was unmet, Harper cannot be dealt anymore this season.

“I didn’t think I was going to leave at all or move at all,” Harper said. “We just got to battle, keep going and keep playing ball.”

Mr. Rizzo, though, wouldn’t promise that no more deals involving other players would be made.

Danny Burns, 18, made his annual trip from New Jersey to D.C. to see his favorite player in Harper. He checked into a hotel a few blocks from Nationals Park around 2 p.m. Tuesday with his brother and two other friends. About two hours later, they walked to the center field gates, having learned that Murphy and Adams had been traded — but not Harper.

“Thank God,” Mr. Burns said.

Mr. Lester, the father of four, wasn’t going to let a .500 team get him down.

“You are still getting your money’s worth when you are here with the kids,” he said.

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