WASHINGTON — After a long, long winter, it appears the Washington Nationals will finally have their attempt at defending their World Series victory. If the 2020 season even makes it to a World Series remains to be seen.
Beginning on either July 23 or 24th, the Nationals, along with the rest of Major League Baseball, will play a grueling schedule of 60 games in 66 days. In order to return the baseball community to a sense of normalcy in a world ravaged by the COVID-19 pandemic, Major League Baseball will try and play all 60 games by September 27. This truncated schedule also avoids the event of a completely lost season, something unprecedented in the 150 year history of professional baseball.
Of those 60 games, 40 will be against Washington’s National League East Division foes: Atlanta Braves, Miami Marlins, New York Mets and Philadelphia Phillies. The remaining 20 games will be interleave contests against their geographic counterparts, the American League East: Baltimore Orioles, Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees, Tampa Bay Rays and Toronto Blue Jays. Of these 20 games, it is rumored a larger chunk will be played against teams’ “natural” interleague rivals, in Washington’s case, that means more games against the Orioles. The make up of this schedule has everything to do with cutting down on travel and limiting exposure for all clubs, with Miami (920 miles) being the farthest the Nationals will have to travel in that 66 days. Unfortunately they don’t get a chance for a regular season World Series “rematch” against the Astros, but hopefully the Astros aren’t around for a potential postseason meeting either.
The Nationals opponents racked up a combined record of 725-733 (.497) in 2019 which doesn’t sound that tough until you put it into perspective. If you remove the bottom teams (Baltimore, Miami) from both divisions, who went a combined 111-213 (.342), that strength of schedule sky rockets to 614-520 (.541). That’s nearly 100-games over .500. Suddenly that rumored “natural rival” stipulation that puts the Orioles on the Nats’ schedule more than the other AL East teams looks pretty nice.
The new 2020 rules also effect Washington in another way; 2020 will feature the Universal DH. That’s right, no pitchers will hit in 2020, which Washington’s Max Scherzer will rue considering he is one of the best hitting pitchers in the game. The Universal DH is not permanent at this point, but it may be hard to put the genie back in the bottle if NL team’s start to like it. Baseball purists may argue, but NL owners, not having to watch their million dollar arms cruise around the bases and in the crosshairs of the opposing pitcher, and NL managers being able to put another potent bat in their lineups, might beg to differ. What other sport features such a glaring difference between “conferences” in the same professional league?
One of the more controversial issues in this odd 2020 season is, despite rumors of an expanded playoff format featuring as many as 16 teams, the playoff format this season remains unchanged. Only the usual amount of 10 teams (3 division winners and 2 Wild Card teams in each league) will make the playoffs, making it the one thing about the 2020 season that is business as usual. This may seem like an odd place to not make any changes but when you look at last season, for instance, it might not be that bad of an idea in a league that usually prides itself on being a marathon, in this “sprint” of a season
In 2019, thru the first 60 games of the season, six of the ten eventual playoff teams occupied the exact same spot in the standings that they would finish the season in: Yankees, Twins, Rays, Brewers, Dodgers, and Astros. On top of that, a 7th team, the Atlanta Braves improved their position and went from wild card to division champs. In essence, 70% of the 2019 playoff field was already “in” 60 games in. If anything, the 2020 season could be an argument for cutting the 162 game season they have played since 1961. However, the Nationals were 27-33 after 60 games in 2019, a number that would, in all likelihood, not make the playoffs in 2020. This shortened season will emphasize the importance of a good start and, no matter how proud they were of their comeback from a 19-31 record, it goes without saying Washington cannot afford another start like that.
In 2019, the Nationals took a postseason road no one had ever taken and won a World Series by winning only road games, something no other team had ever done. It seems fitting their attempt at defending that World Series would be unorthodox as well.