- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 18, 2022

The Washington Nationals lost their 95th game of the year Sunday. And with still more than two weeks remaining in the season, the club’s first 100-loss campaign since 2009 is all but certain. 

Aside from tracking whether the Nationals will break their single-season record for most losses (103 in 2009), the season is essentially over. It has been for months, as the Nationals have owned the worst record in the majors for the majority of the season. And any hope of the postseason officially ended Sept. 6, when the Nationals became the first team eliminated from playoff contention.

But, of course, the show, in the show, must go on. And while it may be difficult for some fans to stomach a noncompetitive roster for the next fortnight, manager Dave Martinez believes these games can be vital for a rebuilding club. 

“I’ve always talked about it’s not about how you start, it’s how you finish,” Martinez said. “You want to see guys progress, and we’re seeing that.”

There are two main reasons, Martinez said, why these September and early October games matter, even for a team about 40 games back in the NL East. The first is the hope that a string of victories can take a good vibe into the offseason. Last season, the opposite happened, as the Nationals, who had initiated the reboot in July by trading eight veterans, lost eight of their last nine games. 

The Nationals (51-95) are 7-9 in September, and Martinez said he’d be happy if his club could play .500 ball to finish the season. 

“When you leave for the wintertime you can take a breath of fresh air knowing that we’ve got potential with some of these guys,” Martinez said. “We start adding pieces here and there, and next thing you know we’re back in the swing of things and we’re competing for a playoff spot or another World Series berth.”

Competition is the other reason why these final contests matter. There’s no telling what the Nationals’ roster could look like next year when spring training begins. But there are several players on the current roster — namely Joey Meneses and Lane Thomas — who are playing for their major-league lives and thriving as the season comes to a close. 

“These guys have to understand that come next year we have to field a team. We’re going to take the 26 best guys,” Martinez said. “These guys get an opportunity to show us what they can do so we have an idea of what we want to do during spring training.”

Thomas entered the season as the opening day left fielder, but he briefly lost that spot after Yadiel Hernandez’s hot start. Thomas has been a near-everyday player since the trade deadline, though, and he’s taken advantage of the opportunity. In that time, Thomas has hit .289 with seven home runs, nine doubles and 16 RBIs in 41 games.

On the season, Thomas has 16 home runs and his on-base plus slugging percentage is 10% above league average. 

“He’s been a lot more aggressive,” Martinez said. “We talk a lot about him getting on the fastballs. He’s a very good fastball hitter. He’s been doing that very well. You see the power numbers going up, and the spike in hits. When he’s aggressive and he gets the ball in the zone, he hits the ball well.”

For Meneses, he was an afterthought two months ago — a minor-league journeyman. Now, he’s the team’s No. 3 hitter with quite the argument to be in the starting lineup come next season. 

The winner of the Juan Soto deal between the Padres and the Nationals won’t be known for years. But, so far, Meneses is the unquestioned winner. After the trade, the 30-year-old Meneses is slashing .309/.341/.537 since making his debut on Aug. 2. Soto, meanwhile, has struggled with his new club with a .205/.373/.323 batting line entering Sunday. 

“This is the dream. I’m just trying to enjoy this and take advantage of the opportunity,” Meneses told MASN Friday. “I just want to keep doing what I’m doing and finish strong. I’m just trying to show them that I want to be here next year in spring training and fight for any place on the field.”

Meneses, whose inside-the-park home run on Friday snapped Washington’s five-game losing streak, didn’t have the same luck Sunday against Miami Marlins starter Sandy Alcantara in the Nationals’ 3-1 loss. Alcantara (13-8), the front-runner to win the NL Cy Young Award, scattered seven hits and one run for his league-leading fifth complete game of the season. He needed only 103 pitches to get 27 outs.

Nationals starter Anibal Sanchez (2-6) was solid for Washington, allowing four hits and two runs in six innings. Bryan De La Cruz led the Marlins with two RBIs, but it was Garrett Cooper’s solo blast in the sixth that served as the game-winning run. 

The Nationals are back in action Monday in Atlanta for a three-game series against the Braves.

• Jacob Calvin Meyer can be reached at jmeyer@washingtontimes.com.

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