Rooting for laundry, yet again

The worst team in baseball traded one of the best players in baseball for the hope of better seasons to come, and Nats fans should have seen that coming. Because we saw this movie last year.

Tuesday’s trade by the Washington Nationals that sent outfielder Juan Soto as well as first baseman Josh Bell to the San Diego Padres in return for a cast of prospects (first baseman/designated hitter Luke Voit, shortstop C.J. Abrams, outfielders Robert Hassell III and James Wood, and pitchers MacKenzie Gore and Jarlin Susana) evoked last year’s trade of pitcher Max Scherzer and shortstop Trea Turner to Los Angeles, although with a higher long-term potential upside. It essentially completes the sell-off of our 2019 World Series team for a cloud of baseball probability.

And yet seeing a generational talent like Soto go feels like less of a gut punch than last year’s trade-deadline move.

First, last year we could pretend that the team had been in a 2021 equivalent of 2019’s 19-31 start. Yes, the Nats were also terrible in 2020, but that season started late and didn’t feature fans in the stands at Nationals Park, so it was just weird even before all of the injuries among an aging team.

This year, however, we have been objectively bad from Opening Day onwards. Soto gave those of us in the stands exciting moments, but if he wanted to win a lot of games soon, Nats Park was not going to be his home field of choice.

Second, the team made a good-faith offer even though current ownership is now exploring selling the team. You can say that management should have worked harder to keep homegrown prospects around over the past few years, but you cannot say that $440 million over 15 years was not a legitimate deal to put on the table.

Soto turning that down only made it a question of what we’d get in a trade before the 2024 expiration of his contract–unless you were thinking that new ownership would swoop in first, back up an even larger bank truck and get a different answer. But what about the star-crossed history of baseball in D.C. would lead any Nats fan who had been in the stands for the 2012 NLDS to pin their hopes on that outcome?

So I feel less gutted about the thought of Soto in a Padres uniform than I might have expected. It helps that he won’t be wearing a Yankees, Braves or Phillies jersey; it will not help if, years from now, the cap on Soto’s likely portrait on a plaque in Cooperstown represents a team that isn’t the Washington Nationals.

Meanwhile, I live in the same place that I’ve called home for the last three decades and counting, the players who run out of the dugout on the first-base side of Nats Park at the start of a game wear jerseys with a curly W for my city, and a pennant above the scoreboard reminds me that I saw D.C. win a World Series championship and redeem all the pain of previous postseasons. And the next time I see a game in some other ballpark, of course I’m going to wear a Nats cap. I love baseball and I love having it here, even if the daily reality of this business may sometimes make me feel like a chump.

You never know what you’ll see at a baseball game, maybe even while you’re watching it

Wednesday, I saw a record-tying 20-strikeout performance at Nationals Park–and I didn’t realize history was happening until the 7th inning or so.

Nats Park scoreboard after Max Scherzer's record-tying 20th strikeout.

I know, unobservant. But in my defense, Max Scherzer’s pitching masterpiece for the Nationals didn’t register on the radar of catcher Wilson Ramos either until he saw that his teammate had put 17 Ks on the scoreboard.

Baseball is like that sometimes. You get so used to seeing a few innings’ worth of no-hit pitching getting broken up that you don’t pick up on an actual no-hitter happening until you’ve spent two innings waiting in line at the Shake Shack.

Yes, I’ve been that out-of-it too. As Jordan Zimmermann mowed down the Marlins in 2014’s last regular-season game, I kept thinking that the game was going by really fast while the line to get a burger was not. In my defense, that was not as stupid as my originally booking my flight home from the Online News Association’s conference to land at almost 5 p.m.; fortunately, I could remedy that mistake with a free same-24-hours flight change.

Keeping score from my seat would have been one way to avoid being oblivious about baseball history happening around me those times, but my own scorekeeping knowledge has barely advanced beyond knowing to yell “E6!” when a shortstop airmails a throw to first into the stands. And on Wednesday, I showed up late anyway.

Yet by the seventh-inning stretch that night, everybody was paying attention to every single pitch, just like we did at Nats Park two Septembers ago. Seeing the guy on the mound accomplish the near-impossible was a great feeling.

And it was something we needed after Tuesday’s gut-punch of yet another postseason elimination of the Capitals–the latest in a long series of playoff collapses for Washington teams that led embittered Post sportswriters to recast the paper’s recount of the Nats’ 2014 exit as a catch-all story of D.C. sports futility:

 

After [SPORTS VERB]ing [HIGH NUMBER] of [SPORTS STATISTICS] in the regular season, [TEAM’S TOP-PAID PLAYER] managed just [VERY LOW NUMBER] of [SAME SPORTS STATISTIC] in the playoffs.

Games like Wednesday’s help push games like Tuesday’s into the background. And if you can’t have those, at least baseball offers enough other improbable situations that you just might get to see on any given day–a hitter running out a dropped third strike, a 9-3-6 double play, a position player coming in to pitch or a pitcher pinch-hitting–to offset somewhat the staring-at-the-wall-at-4-a.m. numbness that being a baseball fan can inflict in October.

At least, that’s what I’m telling myself now. Check back with me in the fall.