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What motivates the Nats in a rebuild? ‘The end of the tunnel.’

What motivates the Nats in a rebuild? ‘The end of the tunnel.’

Tooba Shakir 54 years ago 0 0

This is not what any of them dreamed of. No player, coach or front-office member curled up in their bed as a kid and imagined being the main character of a rebuild. But dreams don’t always line up with reality.

Since their 2019 World Series title, the Washington Nationals ended the past four years at the bottom of the National League East, though 2020, shortened amid the coronavirus pandemic, certainly comes with a caveat.

Their 2024 campaign, just three games old, has been promising and painful. Josiah Gray’s first Opening Day start underwhelmed, but the Nationals rebounded in their second game in Cincinnati. Then closer Kyle Finnegan’s blown save resulted in a devastatingly familiar loss Sunday.

Washington returns to Nationals Park on Monday for its home opener against the Pittsburgh Pirates, with lefty MacKenzie Gore on the mound to begin what the Nationals hope could be a breakout campaign. But even amid the dawn of a new season, years of struggle and shortcomings take a toll — not only on the fans who pay to watch but on the players who must perform every day and on those whose job it is to lead the charge.

“It’s very frustrating. It’s very demoralizing,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said. “But that’s what the rebuilds do. That’s part of this thing. The only thing that gets you through it is the light at the end of the tunnel. Thinking, hoping, knowing that you’re going to go on another eight- to 10-year run of excellence — that gets you through it.”

Finnegan signed with Washington in December 2019, amid the afterglow of the World Series triumph, and remembers a veteran clubhouse with a “winning culture.” He believed the team had the talent to repeat. But the pandemic delayed the start of the season and slowed the Nationals’ momentum. They stumbled out of the gate and couldn’t recover.

In 2021, the Nationals underperformed in the first half, leading to a sell-off at the trade deadline. Suddenly, the rebuild had begun.

“Those days are tough, watching your teammates go other places,” Finnegan said. “But the organization had a plan and a focus on regrouping and building that next sustained, successful team. So I think we’re starting to see some of the fruits of those trades.”

“Losing is the worst thing,” left-hander Patrick Corbin said. “No one enjoys that. … When you’re losing 100-plus games, it’s tough and it wears on you.”

Catcher Keibert Ruiz remembers how the Nationals didn’t discuss their losses in 2022, when they fell 107 times. The clubhouse was often quiet after games, filled with hushed chatter and blank stares.

“I just think that’s … the way the system works now in baseball,” outfielder Lane Thomas said. “Hopefully the fans understand. Obviously, I promise it sucks for us just as much as it does them. We have to live it every day. … It’s tough. It’s hard. If [winning] wasn’t hard, then there would be a lot more people doing it.”

On the field, there were signs that all the losing might be taking a toll. Last June, Gore and Victor Robles had to be separated by teammates in the dugout after the outfielder misread a routine flyball. In September, Gray lashed out at outfielder Jacob Young after he lost a ball in the sun.

Rebuilding teams, especially in the early stages, often are filled with players who won’t be around by the time the club is contending again. But they also can provide some players with opportunity. Finnegan went from pitching the fifth innings of blowouts to being thrust into the closer’s role. Thomas, who arrived at the trade deadline in 2021, turned himself from a fourth outfielder into the team’s best offensive player a season ago.

“I think you look at it both ways,” Thomas said. “There’s definitely a point when you accomplish some things and your priorities start to be different. The longer you play, you prove yourself, and it’s like, ‘All right, I want to win.’ I’m not saying I didn’t always want to win. But at that point, I just got traded. We were eliminated from the playoffs. And it’s like, ‘I just got to prove my worth and get to a point where we can get to a winning mind-set.’ ”

Thomas admitted that, after a slow start last year, he felt the Nationals were headed toward another long season. But the team was 35-37 in the second half, including a solid August when it went 17-11. The disappointed looks in the clubhouse started to fade. The stillness was replaced by “Pepas” by Farruko blasting on the loud speaker. Previously, players had hoped they would beat opponents and were happy when they did. But for that brief moment, they expected it.

Washington made a 16-win jump in 2023, but making another leap this year — especially with a roster didn’t change much in the offseason — could prove difficult. Though losing has been arduous, the Nationals believe brighter days are on the horizon.

“We’re all busting our butts every day,” Finnegan said. “And to not see it displayed in the win-loss column, it takes a toll on you. I think it’s kind of like one of those like forged-in-the-fire situations. So we felt what it’s like to be at the bottom, and we’re getting pretty sick of it.”

Manager Dave Martinez said the past few years have been “tough.”

“There’s nights I go home and I’m like, scratching my head like, ‘Oh, man.’ But I know what my job is coming into the ballpark,” he said. “I try to focus on that and focus on each individual player and how they’re getting better, especially our young guys. And that’s what motivates me. And I know at the end of the tunnel we’ll be good again, and we’re going to compete for championships.”

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