When the Washington Nationals returned home from their triumphant 6-1 road trip this week, I went in search of the answer for what turned around this season from 19-31 to playing the best baseball in the game — 55-27 over their last 82 games, a 74-58 record and leading the National League wild card race.
Surely there was a moment where everything clicked, a magical moment to define the turnaround, the Hollywood instant to tell the story of the 2019 Nationals.
Maybe it was the arrival of Gerardo Parra on May 10, who gave them a lift immediately on the field and has since brought a joy and enthusiasm to a team that typically sleepwalks through seasons, even when they have won NL East division titles.
I leaned toward the return of pitcher Anibal Sanchez from the disabled list — six innings of shutout baseball on May 29 in a 14-4 win over the Atlanta Braves, the start of a run of excellence by Sanchez where, as the fourth starter, he has allowed just 31 runs over 82 innings and, after a 1-6 start, has rebounded to 8-6.
It could be something as simple as key injured players getting healthy. But that’s not very compelling.
So I asked veteran outfielder Adam Eaton about the moment where it all changed for them.
“There wasn’t one particular moment,” he said. “There are so many games.”
Then he dropped what may be the theme of the 2019 Nationals — a T-shirt in the making, perhaps.
“Like Paul Konerko once told me, you can only suck for so long,” Eaton said.
You can only suck for so long.
The 2008 and 2009 Nationals squads may argue with that philosophy. But essentially, those are the words the Nationals clung to during their dismal start in April and May.
Following one after another soul-crushing loss in the first two months of the season, the Nationals would file into their quiet clubhouse, and one veteran — sometimes Max Scherzer, sometimes Ryan Zimmerman or Kurt Suzuki — would stand up and say, perhaps not in these words, “You can only suck for so long.”
They looked around the room and saw the talent around them and believed it – believed that they were not this bad.
They didn’t blame manager Davey Martinez. In fact, they took their cue from the manager, who never changed in his public support of his players.
“We have such a good veteran group in the clubhouse,” Eaton said. “We just put our heads down, played baseball, tried to figure things out and keep working through things. There was never a moment where suddenly we said, ‘OK, that was it, now we are ready to go.’ It was just keep playing good baseball, try not to pay too much attention to it and good things happen.”
“It’s not like we weren’t playing hard when we were losing,” he said. “Everybody saw we were playing with good effort, good intensity.”
Then he offered this, a dose of reality for those who dismiss clubhouse chemistry.
“It might have went in the other direction,” Eaton said.
“I credit a lot of our veterans, Max and Zim and a lot of the older guys who continued to make sure we weren’t paying attention to anything other than ourselves and keep playing,” he said. “Good things will happen … we would come in after a tough loss and having not played well for a long time, and Max or Zim or Suz would say, ‘Hey boys, it’s going to turn. Don’t worry about it. Just keep it at. Things will change in our favor.’”
And they did.
I felt there was a different vibe to this team from spring training, in large part because of the presence of young studs like Juan Soto and Victor Robles, who are two of the cornerstones of this powerful Nationals offense. They brought a spirit to what had been for years, for the most part, a laid-back group. More importantly, they didn’t fold during the bad times and never shrunk from the moment.
“Robles and Soto are very receptive,” Eaton said. “They won’t get crushed by the wave.”
Eaton, of course, qualified all of this with the reality that it’s the end of August and there is a lot of baseball left to play. “We haven’t done anything yet,” he said. “Just keep playing baseball.”
And don’t forget – you can only suck for so long.
• Hear Thom Loverro on 106.7 The Fan Wednesday afternoons and Saturday and Sunday mornings and on the Kevin Sheehan Show podcast.
• Thom Loverro can be reached at email@example.com.
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