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Is there a pro sports authorization weirder than the Washington Nationals? Afore you answer, let’s ascertain weird. We don’t beggarly consistently hapless like the Mets, or bedevilled to irrelevancy like the NBA’s Kings, or multitudinously mismanaged like Washington’s burgundy-and-gold access in the NFL. We don’t beggarly star-crossed, or alike epically underachieving, admitting that aftermost characterization seems destined to be the one slapped aloft the Nats’ 2018 season.



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No, what we’re talking about is a actual appreciative accouterments that, burdened with every advantage, afresh betrays annihilation so abundant as crisis and an appetite so ravening—Win It All! Now!—that it may able-bodied absorb any acceptable adventitious of acceptable it all, ever.



This is, yes, a amount above analytics, a catechism added of the organization’s “culture”—which, by the time it trickles bottomward to a locker room, usually is summed up by the ambiguous across-the-board of “pressure.” It’s a tonal thing: Are you guys activity the pressure? And while no one in baseball thinks it accounts for Washington’s affliction of injuries or All-Star rightfielder Bryce Harper’s first-half slump (not principally anyway), aback the game’s No. 1 chargeless abettor decides whether to -re-sign, one bureau will actually be a authorization vibe that seems jarringly discordant.

Nats ownership, with a active arrangement shaped by, first, absolute acreage titan Ted Lerner, 92, and now, aback June, son and new “managing arch owner” Mark Lerner, funds a top bristles amount but generally comes off as cheap; loves citation abiding strategies but can be stunningly knee-jerk; about holds itself at a abolish yet is consistently ripped as meddlesome. General administrator Mike Rizzo, polarizing and conceivably brilliant, spouts blowing certitudes (“If you’re not in, you’re in the way”) as if he’s the final word—even aback he isn’t. And this year’s clubhouse, abreast from the ablaze corners staked out by amateur Max Scherzer and outfielder Adam Eaton, boasts all the vim of a dentist’s cat-and-mouse room.



“You apprehend a lot of things over there,” said Cubs analgesic Brandon Kintzler aftermost ages at his locker in Chicago, two weeks afterwards the Nats’ GM—falsely, Kintzler insists—accused him of actuality an bearding antecedent in a address that termed Washington’s aggregation allure “a mess,” afresh alien him off. “I don’t say Rizzo’s the problem. You apprehend there’s a lot of pressure, that buying makes all the decisions.”

Kintzler glanced about his new Wrigley digs, elimination but hardly atramentous afterwards a 9–4 accident to the Nats. “It aloof seemed like, over there, the losses were starting to stack—and it wears you down,” he said. “Here, it’s a animation of alpha air. Because they apperceive who they are, and guys are healthy. I feel like aback buying shows themselves, is about a lot, it shows accent a little bit. I haven’t apparent anybody yet about here.

“In Washington, there’s been so abundant acceptable that there’s a lot of burden 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, abounding a fan abject would acceptable such stress. The Nationals (né Expos), afterwards all, began activity in Washington in 2004 afterwards the authorization confused from Montreal, and aural six years the Lerners and Rizzo (elevated to GM in ’09) engineered one of avant-garde sports’ best absorbing builds: Aback 2012 alone the Dodgers accept won added regular-season games. For ’18, the club will afresh draw 2.5 actor admirers to the $693 million, city-financed ballpark that has adapted an breadth already highlighted, says D.C. councilmember Jack Evans, “by three band clubs and a adhesive factory” into a skyline bristling with high-rise apartments, appointment barrio and architecture cranes.

And this season, alike with the ancient World Alternation favorites lurching to their affliction accomplishment aback 2011, the roster—and acreage system—still border with talent. Outfielder Juan Soto, mesmerizingly complete at 19, seems a lock for Amateur of the Year; anticipation Victor Robles is acceptable abundant to accomplish a Harper abandonment about logical; and Scherzer’s abandoned arete could able-bodied acreage him his third beeline Cy Young award.

Still, 2018 will continued be recalled as the franchise’s best amazing failure, beneath for any specific abrasion or miscommunication or abode accident than for what all those specific instances revealed. Alarm it the breaking, afterwards six years, of the Strasburg Promise.

In 2012, Rizzo—against the admonition of his ancestor (a longtime above alliance advance and a Nats adviser), administrator Davey Johnson, abundant of the Nationals’ own clubhouse, Rudy Giuliani and a accord of baseball traditionalists and logicians, not to acknowledgment Nats admirers acquisitive to see their club accustomed a absolute adventitious at a championship in its aboriginal playoff bid—chestily ashore to his year-old plan to assure the arm of ace abode Stephen Strasburg by shutting him bottomward at 160 innings. Remember? It was September. The Nats were in aboriginal place. Strasburg, who had undergone Tommy John anaplasty in 2010, acquainted strong.

Rizzo could accept afflicted his mind. He could accept also, with the Nats’ advantageous the NL East, sat bottomward Strasburg at 120 innings in August, afresh reactivated him for 40 added in the playoffs. But the GM didn’t budge. “I’m hardheaded,” Rizzo said then. Along with the Strasburg abeyance came the absolute pledge: Assurance us. We—and no one else—know the appropriate way. And anytime we’ll be accepted right.

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For Washington fans, it accepted an easier bound of acceptance than you ability think. By actuality so successful, so fast, the team’s administration had becoming its arrogance. Admitting the Nats went on to lose their first-ever playoff alternation that season—and all three since—the 90-win seasons and new aptitude kept coming. Sure, there were moments—third baseman Anthony Rendon alveolate during a 2014 at bat; afterpiece Jonathan Papelbon lunging at Harper’s throat in ’15—that hinted at, well, article actuality off. But maybe not: Anniversary bounce brought alone added able predictions of a championship. Maybe the Lerners and Rizzo were geniuses. The board was still out.

That’s right: No amount area one fell on the Strasburg shutdown, the one allotment to accede on, advancing into the 2018 season, is that the agitation still hadn’t actually resolved. Strasburg and Harper, the draft’s No. 1 picks in 2009 and ’10, respectively, remained aggregation cornerstones, and aftermost abatement Strasburg himself accepted himself a gamer, at continued last, aback he fought off a agitation and chills to boss the Cubs in Bold 4 of the NLDS. A championship this year, keyed by both, would accept been added than abundant to acquiesce Rizzo & Co. to affirmation vindication.

Now? That possibility, that big promise, is all but gone. Harper is advised a 50-50 shot, at best, to acknowledgment abutting season; with All-Star additional baseman Daniel Murphy already gone to the Cubs in August’s wave-the-white-flag barter and as abounding as 10 chargeless agents accepted to exit, the makeover abstracts to be extreme. And alike if Harper does stay, bounded attention for the Nats’ academician assurance has taken a adverse hit.

“It’s acceptable to accept ’em there,” says councilmember Evans of the Nats. “I aloof ambition the aggregation didn’t blot this year. No postseason: Can you accept it? They shouldn’t accept accursed Dusty.”

***

You apprehend that decrepit consistently in D.C. now: From accidental fan to constant baseball hand, there’s no one who doesn’t attention the 2018 attempt as the absolute result, if not karmic payback, for aftermost October’s axing of administrator Dusty Baker. Alike if Baker is no angel of the stathead brigade, the move fabricated little sense: Baker had won 192 amateur and adequate adviser calm in his two years at the helm, and he can hardly be abhorrent for all the amateur failures that apparent Washington’s playoff collapse adjoin the Cubs in aftermost year’s Bold 5. Not to mention: a black, ex-Marine, music aficionado with Hall of Fame ambitions? You couldn’t architecture a added accumulation amount for the assorted and abrupt Washington crowd.

Yet aftermost October, the Nats beneath to extend Baker’s arrangement and in February signed—for three years—longtime bank drillmaster Dave Martinez, with Rizzo declaring that analysis titles weren’t abundant anymore. Whether the champions-or-bust coercion reflected Ted Lerner’s looming retirement or a ability that this group’s championship “window” was closing fast, it abandoned the actuality that alike abundant organizations (see: 1990s Atlanta Braves) can afresh appear up short. Certainly, the “expectations” that Rizzo mentioned hardly reflected some afflicted accessible outcry.

“No, but there’s a lot of added things activity on in D.C.,” says aboriginal baseman Ryan Zimmerman, a Nat aback 2005. “At atomic for the Nationals, D.C. admirers are not live-or-die. They appetite us to win, but we’ve been about for beneath than 15 years. So there’s been a lot of affidavit to be happy.”

Still, in “Nationals Land,” as Rizzo, 57, brand to alarm it, Baker’s battlefront was hardly shocking. Over the aftermost nine years, Washington has had six managers—seven if you calculation Bud Black, who in 2016 verbally agreed and afresh beneath afterwards the Lerners offered bargain pay. Indeed, the job has consistently provided the clearest window into the Nats’ awe-inspiring soul. In 2009, Manny Acta was affected to advertise his own battlefront to the press. In ’11, Jim Riggleman abdicate midseason because the Nats banned to aces up his advantage for the afterwards year.

Baker? He backward in D.C. nine canicule afterwards aftermost season’s end, waiting; Rizzo had accustomed him—and anybody else—every adumbration that he’d be continued addition two years. Aback they assuredly spoke, Baker told SI, Rizzo alike told him to renew the charter on his Washington apartment. “But article told me not to,” Baker says. The day afterwards Baker alternate home to arctic California, Rizzo alleged to say that he was done.

“With buying comes proprietorship,” Baker says of Lerner ancestors ascendancy in baseball decisions. “As Bob Dylan sings, ‘Everybody charge serve somebody.’ That’s the truth, ain’t it? … Either article changed, or Riz didn’t accept the ability to do what he capital to do.”

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Last month—with Martinez’s amateur attack blockage at .500—Rizzo adapt the alternation at administrator as a amount added of allure than a abridgement of titles. “We’ve been analytic for the exact fit, really,” Rizzo said. “I don’t alike attending at that as instability. I attending at it as award the appropriate baton for the brawl club, and I anticipate that Davey is the appropriate guy. I anticipate he fits aggregate that we’ve abstruse that we bare in the past. And I anticipate that we’re attractive for big things from him.”

But not this year, not anymore. How abundant of that is Martinez’s fault? The Nats’ first-half agenda was savaged by injuries to Eaton, Kintzler, Murphy, Rendon, Strasburg, Zimmerman, aboriginal baseman Matt Adams, afterpiece Sean Doolittle, catcher Matt Wieters and analgesic Ryan Madson. Afresh again, the Cardinals and the Dodgers haven’t had it abundant better. Let Rizzo actuate of it: “Relying on injuries consistently sounds like you’re authoritative an account and an excuse. I don’t appetite to do that.”

Besides, article abroad was acutely amiss. Afterwards a July 3 accident alone Washington beneath .500, Scherzer alleged a affair and lit into his teammates. On July 19, the Washington Post appear a allotment detailing, with on-record quotes from Madson and analgesic Shawn Kelley, apropos about Martinez’s administration of the bullpen. The abutting night Strasburg surrendered six runs, and he and Scherzer were angled on camera jawing angrily at anniversary other. Eight canicule later, afterwards Marlins catcher and Nationals barter ambition J.T. Realmuto exhausted Washington with a 10th-inning knock, Harper beatific an alarming bulletin to Rizzo—not to acknowledgment the blow of the lineup.

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

When, on July 30, that bearding antecedent alike onYahoo.com, calling the Nats’ adviser “a mess,” it about seemed redundant. Players denied that their accessible astriction arose from annihilation but losing. “The criticism of our adviser is overrated,” Scherzer said on Aug. 9. “I see guys actually cutting appropriate now. I see a lot of effort—everywhere.

“This is a airy group. Look: We played in two Bold 5s; I saw everybody lay it on the band in those Bold 5s. We’re giving that blazon of accomplishment appropriate now, aggravating to do aggregate we can to win.”

He had a point: That night his aggregation would win afresh to brightness off its best 10-game run aback May. Scherzer couldn’t yet see the arrangement ambience in, the one that emerged in his ascendant alpha two canicule before; with the breach idling, he had captivated the Braves to one run and afresh watched the abode implode. Kelvin Herrera, the acting stopper, absent the bold and rubbed his appropriate shoulder. The abutting day he, too, was on the DL. The ripples from one of the added damaging spasms of Nats weirdness, ever, were alone afresh alpha to hit home.

Ten canicule earlier, Rizzo and the Lerners—after answer a complete sell-off, including, remarkably, barter possibilities for Harper—decided to accord this aggregation one final adventitious to win it all. They fabricated aloof one backward accord at the July 31 -deadline—Kintzler to the Cubs for a accessory leaguer—but advancing amidst the accessible relations squall apropos ambush Trea Turner’s racist and homophobic teenaged tweets, at aboriginal it seemed alone agilely curious. Kintzler wasn’t due to hit chargeless bureau until 2020 and had acquaint a 1.88 ERA over his antecedent 14 innings; publicly, Rizzo termed the move a bacon dump.

While packing his accouterments in the Nats’ clubhouse, however, Kintzler began accepting chat that Rizzo believed that he had been an bearding antecedent abaft the Yahoo report. Kintzler pulled Rizzo into a adjacent appointment and denied it, activity so far as to say “I affirm on my kids” that he’d never announced to the Yahoo writer.

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

Asked about that exchange, Rizzo accepted that his suspicions were absolutely a factor—but “not the alone reason”—for banishing a accepted assistant who had a 3.34 ERA over his aftermost seven years. Curiously, Rizzo afresh aloft the actuality that in the aforementioned avenue interview, Kintzler accepted that he had been one of abounding sources for the counterbalanced Post allotment on the abatement corps’ annoyance with Martinez. Message: In Nationals Land, alike hardly apart aperture can get you shipped.

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

That became alike clearer a few hours later. Alike a 25–4 laugher signaled chaos. Alleged in to angle adjoin the Mets with the account 25–1 in the ninth, Kelley (3.34 ERA in 35 appearances) glared aboveboard at the dugout and flung his cuff bottomward afterwards giving up a home run; he insisted afterwards that he was affronted alone at the umpires. Martinez agreed, but Rizzo—and reportedly some teammates—thought Kelley’s anger showed up the administrator and confronted him in the clubhouse. Rizzo appointed him for actual appointment and the abutting day fabricated his “If you’re not in, you’re in the way” declaration. Kelley anon landed in Oakland. He has aback accustomed up aught runs in 10 appearances.

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

This is a bit rich, advancing from the alignment that brought aback Papelbon the analysis afterwards he approved to asphyxiate Harper. Never apperception that it ability not be acceptable optics—in the clubhouse—for Rizzo to accumulate arresting his amateur manager, or that a apologetic Kelley presented a adventitious for Martinez to affectation the able bodies abilities that got him assassin in the aboriginal place. Never mind, too, that Madson, Herrera and Doolittle were on the DL aback Rizzo said this, and the two abandoned relievers could accept helped abundantly if adversity struck.

Strike it did. The bullpen’s post-deadline ERA anon ballooned to 5.06. The Nationals suffered bristles acute losses on a beat through Chicago and St. Louis, including conceivably their best barbarous gutting, ever. Afterwards addition Scherzer gem on Aug. 12, at Wrigley Field, Washington captivated a 3–0 advance in the basal of the ninth—one of the few times this year aback karma, at continued last, seemed to be accepted aback the Nats’ way. Afresh the awe-inspiring kicked in. Madson gave up a distinct and hit two batters. Career accessory leaguer David Bote formed a pinch-hit, two-strike, two-out admirable bang to asleep center, the aboriginal such come-from-behind bang by a Cub in some 90 years. Madson absolved into the adviser afterwards and abashed reporters—and anybody up and bottomward the organization—by adage that his aback had been affliction him. He had acquainted it abating up in the bullpen. He didn’t anticipate to acquaint his coaches or Martinez.

The administrator aboriginal abstruse of all this in a tweet. The abutting day Martinez was asked if he had been afraid to apprehend of Madson’s impairment.

“Very,” he said.

***

Four canicule afterwards Harper sat angled afore his locker, arch tucked central a hoodie. No one talked to him. The Nats had absent four straight, but he seemed relaxed, upbeat even. He had afresh hit his 30th home run; he was now on clip for 100-plus RBIs; his boilerplate had climbed 30 credibility aback June. Harper leaned aback and said he never feared that his bold wouldn’t appear around.

“I don’t anticipate I anytime worried,” Harper said. “I await on my beat heavy, I await on the way I comedy the bold abundant as well. I’ve got abundant teammates that accept in me, and I accept in myself every distinct day I airing in the clubhouse. I never anguish about activity 0 for 4 or 4 for 4. Every day is a new day, and I’m actual advantageous to comedy this bold and be appealing accursed acceptable at it.”

A 12–1 accident to the average Marlins, and the death-rattle trades of Murphy and Adams, and management’s accommodation to accept the season, were still canicule away. Washington in the World Series, this year, was still article he could imagine.

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“It’d be incredible,” Harper said. “For me, actuality able to comedy with this alignment for the accomplished seven years—it’s been amazing. We’ve got a abundant aggregation in this clubhouse, we’ve had abundant teams in the past, and if we can get Stras back, hopefully we can go on a run and win the thing. We’re accepted the bats able-bodied appropriate now as a team. We’ve aloof got to win. . . .”

Now that’s over. Now Rizzo, the Lerners and Nationals admirers accept every acumen to activate cerebration about abutting year. Suitors are basic offers; a tidy account of actual affluent teams assume analytic candidates to assurance the shiniest baseball brilliant Washington has anytime known. Your move, Bryce.

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