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

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WASHINGTON — 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.”

Swanson, Olson go deep vs Scherzer, Braves take NL East lead

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ATLANTA — Dansby Swanson and Matt Olson homered off Max Scherzer, lifting the Atlanta Braves to a crucial 4-2 victory Saturday night over the New York Mets and a one-game lead in the NL East.

The defending World Series champions beat aces Jacob deGrom and Scherzer on consecutive nights to take their biggest lead of the season in the division. New York, which held a 10 1/2-game cushion on June 1, faces its biggest deficit of the year with four games remaining.

Atlanta will try for a three-game sweep Sunday night, with the winner earning the season-series tiebreaker between the teams. Even though both teams are headed to the postseason, that’s important because the NL East champion gets a first-round bye in the playoffs.

Swanson’s 24th homer, a go-ahead, two-run shot in the fifth inning, touched off a frenzy among the sold-out crowd at Truist Park, the ball sailing a few rows up into the seats in left-center to make it 3-2. Olson hit his 32nd homer in the sixth, a solo shot into Chop House seats in right to put Atlanta up 4-2.

Austin Riley led off the fourth with a double and scored on Olson’s single to make it 1-all.

Kyle Wright (21-5) gave up two runs and seven hits with one walk and three strikeouts in five innings as he won his eighth straight decision. The Braves have won 16 of his last 17 starts.

New York went up 2-1 in the fifth when Pete Alonso, Francisco Lindor and Jeff McNeil hit consecutive two-out singles.

The Mets led 1-0 in the first when Brandon Nimmo singled, advanced on a walk and a single and scored on Eduardo Escobar‘s groundout. Wright, who threw 30 pitches in the first, stranded two runners in scoring position to prevent further damage.

Scherzer (11-5) allowed a first-inning single to Riley and a third-inning infield single to Ronald Acuna Jr., who advanced to third on a fielding error by Lindor at shortstop but was stranded when Michael Harris II lined out to center. Scherzer patted his glove and pumped his fist as he walked off the mound.

Scherzer was charged with nine hits and four runs with no walks and four strikeouts in 5 2/3 innings as the Mets were knocked out of first place for only the third day all season.

The Braves have won five of the last six against New York to tie the season series 9-all, outscoring the Mets 37-16 over that stretch.

Atlanta’s bullpen, which posted a 1.70 ERA in September, got a perfect inning from Dylan Lee in the sixth. Jesse Chavez faced four batters in the seventh, Raisel Iglesias faced the minimum in the eighth and closer Kenley Jansen pitched a perfect ninth for his NL-leading 39th save in 46 chances.

Since the Braves were a season low-tying four games under .500 at 23-27 after play on May 31, they have gone 76-32, tying the Los Angeles Dodgers for the best record in the majors over that span. They were a season-worst 10 1/2 games behind the first-place Mets on June 1.

Wright, the only 20-game winner in baseball this season, hasn’t officially become the first Braves pitcher to lead the league in wins outright since Russ Ortiz had 21 in 2003, but the Dodgers’ Julio Urias has 17 and can’t reach 20 before the regular season ends.

Wright will become the first Braves pitcher since Hall of Famer Tom Glavine in 2000 to lead the majors in wins. Houston ace Justin Verlander also has 17.

Wright began the game 1-4 with a 6.75 ERA in six career starts and one relief appearance against the Mets.

The Braves, who got homers from Riley, Olson and Swanson off deGrom on Friday, lead the NL with 240 homers.

TRAINER’S ROOM

Mets: All-Star RF Starling Marte (right middle finger fracture) has yet to begin swinging or throwing. Manager Buck Showalter said Marte is experiencing less pain but not enough to take the next step in his recovery. Marte has been sidelined since Sept. 7.

Braves: RHP Spencer Strider still has not thrown as he gets treatment on a sore left oblique. Manager Brian Snitker said there is no timetable for the rookie’s return. Strider has been sidelined since Sept. 21.

NICE GLOVE

Harris ran back and jumped to catch Nimmo’s fly against the wall in center field for the first out of the third.

UP NEXT

Mets RHP Chris Bassitt (15-8, 3.27 ERA) will face RHP Charlie Morton (9-6, 4.29) as the teams conclude a three-game series.