Like any rivalry, the barking between fans of the New York Mets and Washington Nationals descends into the absurd, truthful though it may be. Repeatedly referencing the Nationals four shots at the playoffs and four first round playoff losses in the Bryce Harper–Stephen Strasburg years is undoubtedly accurate, but it’s not as if the Mets have won a championship during that time to accord them an unassailable argument to validate the mocking.
Still, the Mets won the pennant in 2015. The Nationals are saddled with not just the inability to get beyond the first round, but also the 2015 implosion that allowed the Mets to pass, lap and embarrass them, and a dwindling amount of time to make good on a cycle of seven years in which they had the most talent in baseball, all the pieces in place for a dynasty and are on the verge of letting it slip away. If it comes completely undone in the first month of what could be Harper’s last season as a National is more apropos than tragic.
The same Nationals fans who roll their eyes at Mets fans’ ridicule and seek to dismiss the Mets’ searing start as if order will be restored in due time are eliciting a sense of “the lady doth protest too much, methinks.” Already being six games out of first place after two weeks is not something to cavalierly dismiss. It’s not just that the Nationals have fallen so far behind so fast, but the way they’ve done it should be especially worrisome with a rapid spiral an increasingly possible outcome.
Even with a hedging halfway projection in the five games between Saturday and Wednesday, the Nationals could find themselves nine games out of first place with two weeks remaining in the first month of the season.
The Nationals have reason to reference injuries as a cause of their early-season struggles – a cause, but not the cause. The Mets had the same justification, well, forever and the Nationals showed no sympathy in beating them brutally. Why should the Mets not reciprocate when their rival is bruised and bleeding?
Daniel Murphy is still recovering from knee surgery and Adam Eaton has a bone bruise. Those are two key components from their lineup who are missing. Their starting pitching has been predictably excellent. The bullpen has been mediocre. What accounts for their 6-8 record at this writing is their offense. Ryan Zimmerman’s lack of game action in spring training was shrugged off as a tactical decision, but a .424 OPS and a 16 OPS+ after 47 plate appearances indicates that, yeah, maybe at-bats in minor-league games to keep him healthy for the regular season was not the best idea in the world.
Trea Turner has a slash of .208/.333/.283; Michael Taylor is at .160/.192/.180. Without Murphy and Eaton, not even a megastar like Harper and the embarrassingly underrated star Anthony Rendon can make up for that.
There is no answer to the question as to whether this would be happening to the Nationals had they not retreated to their familiar template of blame and cheapness with a key factor in success and failure — the manager — and given Dusty Baker the contract extension he earned not only with back-to-back division titles, but by cleaning up the mess left behind by the manager he replaced, Matt Williams.
Williams’s resume is eerily comparable to that of the manager they hired to replace Baker, Dave Martinez. Sabermetric advocates loathe Baker and love Martinez due largely to his longstanding affiliation with Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon and his familiarity with the numbers-based, new age style utilized by the Cubs and before that the Tampa Bay Rays. Baker’s strength was never strategic. His strength is running the clubhouse and gaining favor with the players because they knew he had their backs and would let them do their jobs without constantly being in their faces. Results are what they are. Baker got them. Martinez is not.
An overriding concern should not be falling so far behind this quickly, but players like Harper, Murphy and Gio Gonzalez seeing where the season is headed and thinking of their pending free agency rather than salvaging what could be a lost cause by May. Harper in particular could have as much as half-a-billion dollars riding on this season. Does a desperate run and the work necessary to salvage a Wild Card justify risking that by diving, running into walls and busting on every play?
Yes, it’s early. No, the Mets and their fans should not be gloating. But that does not dispel the concerns that should be reverberating for the Nationals, because they are very real even in mid-April with 90 percent of the season remaining.