Champs to chumps: Age, injuries drop 2020 Nats to last place

WASHINGTON (AP) — Don’t tell Max Scherzer this year didn’t count. Yes, there were fewer than half as many games as normal. Sure, there were rules changes.

All Scherzer knows is there was a Major League Baseball season played in 2020, his Washington Nationals were coming off a World Series championship, and they ended up tied for last in the NL East with a record of 26-34.

“We weren’t able to replicate the success we had last year into this year. It’s just the way it goes. Everybody has a hand in it. Everybody needs to reflect upon what they did — and didn’t — do well and try to make those adjustments going into next year. That’s just life in the big leagues. When you don’t win, there’s going to be a lot of attention to why you didn’t win. You’re always going to have that pressure to perform,” the three-time Cy Young Award winner said.

“I’m sure there’s people that are going to look at this and say, ‘Hey, it’s only 60 games.. …’ But that’s not my mentality,” Scherzer continued. “I came into this year fully prepared to win. And we didn’t win.”

Not nearly enough in the pandemic-shortened season.

Indeed, Washington’s .433 winning percentage was the lowest for a defending champion since the 1998 Florida Marlins were 54-108 for a .333 mark.

“I’m not putting too much weight into a 60-game sample size. I know this team’s better than what we played this year,” reliever Daniel Hudson said. “I think if we would have gotten 162 games, or obviously more than 60 games, we would have been able to show that.”

Some other things to know about the Nationals as they look ahead to 2021:

BRING ’EM BACK

After nearly a full season with their contract status up in the air, manager Dave Martinez and GM Mike Rizzo recently were given contract extensions and can continue to lead the Nationals. “It’s a good match,” Rizzo said.

SOTO

The biggest reason for optimism moving forward is outfielder Juan Soto, who at 21 became the NL’s youngest batting champion in baseball’s modern era (since 1900). He hit .351 with 13 homers and 37 RBIs. “We just need a couple pieces,” Soto said, “then we’ll come back and I think we can make it all the way again.”

LOCK HIM UP?

Trea Turner hit .335 with 12 homers and 41 RBIs, and Rizzo called the 27-year-old shortstop “part of that core that we’re talking about” and someone he’d like to keep around for the long haul. “You are looking at a young player that’s really coming into his own and becoming a real factor in the game,” the GM said. “So he’s a guy that we have had (contract) discussions (with) in the past. We certainly would love to continue to have discussions.”

YOUNGER AND HEALTHIER?

Rizzo hit upon a significant issue for this season’s Nationals when he referred to “all the uncertainty about the health of an older, aging roster.” All manner of injuries caused problems, from World Series MVP Stephen Strasburg pitching just five innings because of a nerve issue in his throwing hand to the big group that ended the year on the injured list, including Howie Kendrick, Sean Doolittle, Tanner Rainey, Adam Eaton, Starlin Castro and rookie third baseman Carter Kieboom, who struggled. Having the oldest roster in the majors — remember Los Viejos? — was an asset in 2019, less so in 2020. Now the question becomes whether Kendrick (who might retire), Doolittle or Eaton, key members of the title team, return.

START BETTER

Washington was 19-31 for the second year in a row. In 2019, the club engineered a remarkable turnaround that led to a trophy. In 2020, there weren’t enough games to erase that start. Martinez knows something needs to change about the way his team leaves spring training. “Those March 28, 29 games, whatever, early April games, those games are just as important as the games in late September,” he said. “So I want these guys to … just think about the first 60 games of next year and where we want to be.”

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Follow Howard Fendrich on Twitter at https://twitter.com/HowardFendrich

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