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  • After years of piling up regular-season wins, the Nationals seemed readier than ever to make a World Series run. Instead of a break through, they've broken down.
By S.L. Price
September 05, 2018

This story appears in the Sept. 10, 2018, issue of Sports Illustrated. For more great storytelling and in-depth analysis, subscribe to the magazine—and get up to 94% off the cover price. Click here for more.

Is there a pro sports franchise weirder than the Washington Nationals? Before you answer, let’s define weird. We don’t mean forever hapless like the Mets, or doomed to irrelevancy like the NBA’s Kings, or multitudinously mismanaged like Washington’s burgundy-and-gold entry in the NFL. We don’t mean star-crossed, or even epically underachieving, though that last label seems destined to be the one slapped upon the Nats’ 2018 season.

No, what we’re talking about is a very proud outfit that, laden with every advantage, lately betrays nothing so much as insecurity and an ambition so ravening—Win It All! Now!—that it may well consume any good chance of winning it all, ever. 

This is, yes, a matter beyond analytics, a question more of the organization’s “culture”—which, by the time it trickles down to a locker room, usually is summed up by the vague catch-all of “pressure.” It’s a tonal thing: Are you guys feeling the pressure? And while no one in baseball thinks it accounts for Washington’s plague of injuries or All-Star rightfielder Bryce Harper’s first-half slump (not principally anyway), when the game’s No. 1 free agent decides whether to -re-sign, one factor will surely be a franchise vibe that seems jarringly discordant.

Nats ownership, with a hard-driving template shaped by, first, real estate titan Ted Lerner, 92, and now, since June, son and new “managing principal owner” Mark Lerner, funds a top five payroll but often comes off as cheap; loves citing long-term strategies but can be stunningly knee-jerk; publicly holds itself at a remove yet is constantly ripped as meddlesome. General manager Mike Rizzo, polarizing and perhaps brilliant, spouts macho certitudes (“If you’re not in, you’re in the way”) as if he’s the final word—even when he isn’t. And this year’s clubhouse, aside from the fiery corners staked out by starter Max Scherzer and outfielder Adam Eaton, boasts all the vim of a dentist’s waiting room.

“You hear a lot of things over there,” said Cubs reliever Brandon Kintzler last month at his locker in Chicago, two weeks after the Nats’ GM—falsely, Kintzler insists—accused him of being an anonymous source in a report that termed Washington’s team chemistry “a mess,” then shipped him off. “I don’t say Rizzo’s the problem. You hear there’s a lot of pressure, that ownership makes all the decisions.”

Kintzler glanced around his new Wrigley digs, emptying but hardly funereal after a 9–4 loss to the Nats. “It just seemed like, over there, the losses were starting to stack—and it wears you down,” he said. “Here, it’s a breath of fresh air. Because they know who they are, and guys are healthy. I feel like when ownership shows themselves, is around a lot, it shows stress a little bit. I haven’t seen anybody yet around here.

“In Washington, there’s been so much winning that there’s a lot of pressure to get over the hump. There’s so much, This is the window! This is the time. There’s a lot of stress.”

Of course, many a fan base would welcome such stress. The Nationals (né Expos), after all, began life in Washington in 2004 after the franchise moved from Montreal, and within six years the Lerners and Rizzo (elevated to GM in ’09) engineered one of modern sports’ most impressive builds: Since 2012 only the Dodgers have won more regular-season games. For ’18, the club will again draw 2.5 million fans to the $693 million, city-financed ballpark that has transformed an area once highlighted, says D.C. councilmember Jack Evans, “by three strip clubs and a cement factory” into a skyline bristling with high-rise apartments, office buildings and construction cranes.

And this season, even with the one-time World Series favorites lurching to their worst finish since 2011, the roster—and farm system—still brim with talent. Outfielder Juan Soto, mesmerizingly mature at 19, seems a lock for Rookie of the Year; prospect Victor Robles is good enough to make a Harper departure almost logical; and Scherzer’s lonely excellence could well land him his third straight Cy Young award.

Still, 2018 will long be recalled as the franchise’s most spectacular failure, less for any specific injury or miscommunication or bullpen meltdown than for what all those specific instances revealed. Call it the breaking, after six years, of the Strasburg Promise.

In 2012, Rizzo—against the advice of his father (a longtime major league scout and a Nats adviser), manager Davey Johnson, much of the Nationals’ own clubhouse, Rudy Giuliani and a consensus of baseball traditionalists and logicians, not to mention Nats fans eager to see their club given a real chance at a championship in its first playoff bid—chestily stuck to his year-old plan to protect the arm of ace pitcher Stephen Strasburg by shutting him down at 160 innings. Remember? It was September. The Nats were in first place. Strasburg, who had undergone Tommy John surgery in 2010, felt strong.

Rizzo could have changed his mind. He could have also, with the Nats’ commanding the NL East, sat down Strasburg at 120 innings in August, then reactivated him for 40 more in the playoffs. But the GM didn’t budge. “I’m hardheaded,” Rizzo said then. Along with the Strasburg shutdown came the implicit pledge: Trust us. We—and no one else—know the right way. And someday we’ll be proved right.

For Washington fans, it proved an easier leap of faith than you might think. By being so successful, so fast, the team’s management had earned its arrogance. Though the Nats went on to lose their first-ever playoff series that season—and all three since—the 90-win seasons and new talent kept coming. Sure, there were moments—third baseman Anthony Rendon yawning during a 2014 at bat; closer Jonathan Papelbon lunging at Harper’s throat in ’15—that hinted at, well, something being off. But maybe not: Each spring brought only more expert predictions of a championship. Maybe the Lerners and Rizzo were geniuses. The jury was still out.

That’s right: No matter where one fell on the Strasburg shutdown, the one part to agree on, coming into the 2018 season, is that the debate still hadn’t fully resolved. Strasburg and Harper, the draft’s No. 1 picks in 2009 and ’10, respectively, remained team cornerstones, and last fall Strasburg himself proved himself a gamer, at long last, when he fought off a fever and chills to dominate the Cubs in Game 4 of the NLDS. A championship this year, keyed by both, would have been more than enough to allow Rizzo & Co. to claim vindication.

Now? That possibility, that big promise, is all but gone. Harper is considered a 50-50 shot, at best, to return next season; with All-Star second baseman Daniel Murphy already gone to the Cubs in August’s wave-the-white-flag trade and as many as 10 free agents expected to exit, the makeover figures to be extreme. And even if Harper does stay, local regard for the Nats’ brain trust has taken a devastating hit.

“It’s good to have ’em there,” says councilmember Evans of the Nats. “I just wish the team didn’t suck this year. No postseason: Can you believe it? They shouldn’t have fired Dusty.”

***

You hear that muttered constantly in D.C. now: From casual fan to lifelong baseball hand, there’s no one who doesn’t regard the 2018 plunge as the direct result, if not karmic payback, for last October’s axing of manager Dusty Baker. Even if Baker is no darling of the stathead brigade, the move made little sense: Baker had won 192 games and restored clubhouse calm in his two years at the helm, and he can hardly be blamed for all the player failures that marked Washington’s playoff collapse against the Cubs in last year’s Game 5. Not to mention: a black, ex-Marine, music aficionado with Hall of Fame ambitions? You couldn’t design a more unifying figure for the diverse and snappy Washington crowd.

Yet last October, the Nats declined to extend Baker’s contract and in February signed—for three years—longtime bench coach Dave Martinez, with Rizzo declaring that division titles weren’t enough anymore. Whether the champions-or-bust urgency reflected Ted Lerner’s looming retirement or a realization that this group’s championship “window” was closing fast, it ignored the fact that even great organizations (see: 1990s Atlanta Braves) can repeatedly come up short. Certainly, the “expectations” that Rizzo mentioned hardly reflected some anguished public outcry.

“No, but there’s a lot of other things going on in D.C.,” says first baseman Ryan Zimmerman, a Nat since 2005. “At least for the Nationals, D.C. fans are not live-or-die. They want us to win, but we’ve been around for less than 15 years. So there’s been a lot of reasons to be happy.”

Still, in “Nationals Land,” as Rizzo, 57, likes to call it, Baker’s firing was hardly shocking. Over the last nine years, Washington has had six managers—seven if you count Bud Black, who in 2016 verbally agreed and then declined after the Lerners offered cut-rate pay. Indeed, the job has consistently provided the clearest window into the Nats’ weird soul. In 2009, Manny Acta was forced to announce his own firing to the press. In ’11, Jim Riggleman quit midseason because the Nats refused to pick up his option for the following year.

Baker? He stayed in D.C. nine days after last season’s end, waiting; Rizzo had given him—and everyone else—every indication that he’d be extended another two years. When they finally spoke, Baker told SI, Rizzo even told him to renew the lease on his Washington apartment. “But something told me not to,” Baker says. The day after Baker returned home to northern California, Rizzo called to say that he was done.

“With ownership comes proprietorship,” Baker says of Lerner family clout in baseball decisions. “As Bob Dylan sings, ‘Everybody must serve somebody.’ That’s the truth, ain’t it? … Either something changed, or Riz didn’t have the power to do what he wanted to do.”

Last month—with Martinez’s rookie campaign stalling at .500—Rizzo recast the instability at manager as a matter more of chemistry than a lack of titles. “We’ve been searching for the exact fit, really,” Rizzo said. “I don’t even look at that as instability. I look at it as finding the right leader for the ball club, and I think that Davey is the right guy. I think he fits everything that we’ve learned that we needed in the past. And I think that we’re looking for big things from him.”

But not this year, not anymore. How much of that is Martinez’s fault? The Nats’ first-half roster was savaged by injuries to Eaton, Kintzler, Murphy, Rendon, Strasburg, Zimmerman, first baseman Matt Adams, closer Sean Doolittle, catcher Matt Wieters and reliever Ryan Madson. Then again, the Cardinals and the Dodgers haven’t had it much better. Let Rizzo dispose of it: “Relying on injuries always sounds like you’re making an alibi and an excuse. I don’t want to do that.”

Besides, something else was clearly amiss. After a July 3 loss dropped Washington below .500, Scherzer called a meeting and lit into his teammates. On July 19, the Washington Post published a piece detailing, with on-record quotes from Madson and reliever Shawn Kelley, concerns about Martinez’s handling of the bullpen. The next night Strasburg surrendered six runs, and he and Scherzer were caught on camera jawing furiously at each other. Eight days later, after Marlins catcher and Nationals trade target J.T. Realmuto beat Washington with a 10th-inning knock, Harper sent an unnerving message to Rizzo—not to mention the rest of the lineup.

“If that guy was on our side, it wouldn’t have happened,” Harper told reporters. “Tough luck.”

When, on July 30, that unnamed source surfaced on
Yahoo.com, calling the Nats’ clubhouse “a mess,” it almost seemed redundant. Players denied that their obvious tension arose from anything but losing. “The criticism of our clubhouse is overrated,” Scherzer said on Aug. 9. “I see guys absolutely grinding right now. I see a lot of effort—everywhere.

“This is a resilient group. Look: We played in two Game 5s; I saw everybody lay it on the line in those Game 5s. We’re giving that type of effort right now, trying to do everything we can to win.”

He had a point: That night his team would win again to polish off its best 10-game run since May. Scherzer couldn’t yet see the pattern setting in, the one that emerged in his dominant start two days before; with the offense idling, he had held the Braves to one run and then watched the bullpen implode. Kelvin Herrera, the interim stopper, lost the game and rubbed his right shoulder. The next day he, too, was on the DL. The ripples from one of the more damaging spasms of Nats weirdness, ever, were only then beginning to hit home.

Ten days earlier, Rizzo and the Lerners—after mulling a complete sell-off, including, remarkably, trade possibilities for Harper—decided to give this team one final chance to win it all. They made just one late deal at the July 31 -deadline—Kintzler to the Cubs for a minor leaguer—but coming amid the public relations squall regarding shortstop Trea Turner’s racist and homophobic teenaged tweets, at first it seemed only mildly curious. Kintzler wasn’t due to hit free agency until 2020 and had posted a 1.88 ERA over his previous 14 innings; publicly, Rizzo termed the move a salary dump.

While packing his belongings in the Nats’ clubhouse, however, Kintzler began getting word that Rizzo believed that he had been an anonymous source behind the Yahoo report. Kintzler pulled Rizzo into a nearby office and denied it, going so far as to say “I swear on my kids” that he’d never spoken to the Yahoo writer.

“Well,” Kintzler recalled Rizzo replying, “I think you did.”

Asked about that exchange, Rizzo confirmed that his suspicions were indeed a factor—but “not the only reason”—for banishing a popular teammate who had a 3.34 ERA over his last seven years. Curiously, Rizzo then raised the fact that in the same exit interview, Kintzler admitted that he had been one of many sources for the balanced Post piece on the relief corps’ frustration with Martinez. Message: In Nationals Land, even slightly loose lips can get you shipped.

Two weeks later the move still had Washington’s relievers mystified. “There’s a lot that I don’t understand about it, and I’m trying to,” Doolittle said. “Guys get traded. But he was such an important piece for us.”

That became even clearer a few hours later. Even a 25–4 laugher signaled chaos. Called in to pitch against the Mets with the score 25–1 in the ninth, Kelley (3.34 ERA in 35 appearances) glared openly at the dugout and flung his glove down after giving up a home run; he insisted afterward that he was angry only at the umpires. Martinez agreed, but Rizzo—and reportedly some teammates—thought Kelley’s tantrum showed up the manager and confronted him in the clubhouse. Rizzo designated him for immediate assignment and the next day made his “If you’re not in, you’re in the way” declaration. Kelley soon landed in Oakland. He has since given up zero runs in 10 appearances.

“We do the Kelley DFA no matter what,” Rizzo said in mid-August. “No matter if Madson, Doolittle and Herrera are on the DL, I do that deal. It was embarrassing to the organization, the way he conducted himself.”

This is a bit rich, coming from the organization that brought back Papelbon the season after he tried to choke Harper. Never mind that it might not be good optics—in the clubhouse—for Rizzo to keep defending his rookie manager, or that a chastened Kelley presented a chance for Martinez to display the deft people skills that got him hired in the first place. Never mind, too, that Madson, Herrera and Doolittle were on the DL when Rizzo said this, and the two banished relievers could have helped greatly if disaster struck.

Strike it did. The bullpen’s post-deadline ERA soon ballooned to 5.06. The Nationals suffered five excruciating losses on a swing through Chicago and St. Louis, including perhaps their most brutal gutting, ever. After another Scherzer gem on Aug. 12, at Wrigley Field, Washington held a 3–0 lead in the bottom of the ninth—one of the few times this year when karma, at long last, seemed to be swinging back the Nats’ way. Then the weird kicked in. Madson gave up a single and hit two batters. Career minor leaguer David Bote hammered a pinch-hit, two-strike, two-out grand slam to dead center, the first such come-from-behind slam by a Cub in some 90 years. Madson walked into the clubhouse afterward and startled reporters—and everyone up and down the organization—by saying that his back had been hurting him. He had felt it warming up in the bullpen. He didn’t think to tell his coaches or Martinez.

The manager first learned of all this in a tweet. The next day Martinez was asked if he had been surprised to hear of Madson’s impairment.

“Very,” he said.

***

Four days later Harper sat bent before his locker, head tucked inside a hoodie. No one talked to him. The Nats had lost four straight, but he seemed relaxed, upbeat even. He had recently hit his 30th home run; he was now on pace for 100-plus RBIs; his average had climbed 30 points since June. Harper leaned back and said he never feared that his game wouldn’t come around.

“I don’t think I ever worried,” Harper said. “I rely on my swing heavy, I rely on the way I play the game heavy as well. I’ve got great teammates that believe in me, and I believe in myself every single day I walk in the clubhouse. I never worry about going 0 for 4 or 4 for 4. Every day is a new day, and I’m very fortunate to play this game and be pretty dang good at it.”

A 12–1 loss to the lowly Marlins, and the death-rattle trades of Murphy and Adams, and management’s decision to concede the season, were still days away. Washington in the World Series, this year, was still something he could imagine.

“It’d be incredible,” Harper said. “For me, being able to play with this organization for the past seven years—it’s been amazing. We’ve got a great team in this clubhouse, we’ve had great teams in the past, and if we can get Stras back, hopefully we can go on a run and win the thing. We’re swinging the bats well right now as a team. We’ve just got to win. . . .”

Now that’s over. Now Rizzo, the Lerners and Nationals fans have every reason to begin thinking about next year. Suitors are readying offers; a tidy list of very rich teams seem logical candidates to sign the shiniest baseball star Washington has ever known. Your move, Bryce.

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