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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Nationals have thrown in the towel, but was it too late?

Chicago Cubs' Daniel Murphy watches his solo home

Chicago Cubs' Daniel Murphy watches his solo home run during the eighth inning of a baseball game against the Cincinnati Reds, Friday, Aug. 24, 2018, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh) Credit: AP/Nam Y. Huh

BALTIMORE — Three weeks ago, in this space, we praised the Nationals for passing on a fire sale. General manager Mike Rizzo defiantly kicked off deadline day by roaring that Bryce Harper was staying put and that Washington, despite barely sitting on the playoff bubble at 52-53, would make a serious push for the postseason.

It’s not as if the Nats were chasing the Red Sox or Yankees. This was the National League, after all. And within the division, the Phillies and Braves are flawed teams.

Yet nearly a month later, Rizzo’s rallying cry apparently fell on deaf ears in D.C. His $182-million roster, minus some injured pieces, kept flirting with .500 as their season hung in the balance. So on Tuesday, Rizzo finally waved the white flag, trading Daniel Murphy to the Cubs after he was claimed by them on waivers and dealing Matt Adams to the Cardinals.

Harper, despite reportedly being claimed by the Dodgers, remained in Washington, even though he’ll be a free agent at the end of this season.

We can’t blame Rizzo for finally pulling the ripcord on 2018, and for those who insist he blew it a month earlier by not getting more at the non-waiver deadline, maybe he was just guilty of putting too much faith in this badly underachieving group.

With five weeks left, was 7 1⁄2 games really an insurmountable hurdle in the NL? Usually, we’d say no way, particularly this season, as the schedule is filled with weaklings in both leagues. But Rizzo must have grown frustrated by this bunch — under the questionable tutelage of first-year manager Dave Martinez — and chose to fold, a tactic not typically done by perennial contenders.

“These are tough decisions,” Rizzo said this past week during a news conference at Nationals Park. “We took a chance at the first trade deadline and held tight with the belief that that was our best way to compete, kept almost our entire roster intact. I still think today, we have the talent base on this team to play competitive games at the end of the season, realizing I know what the standings say and what the calendar says.”

If the Nationals couldn’t make up any ground with Murphy or Adams on the roster, trading them hardly would seem to be a cure for the clubhouse-wide malaise that apparently infects this team. And what about the deeper issues that seem to plague this franchise, which has yet to win a playoff series in four tries (over a six-year span) since moving from Montreal in 2005?

At least one thing is certain: Dusty Baker, who was unceremoniously dumped after last October’s first-round loss, wasn’t the problem. Whatever low opinion the front office evidently had of Baker, he still got the Nationals a pair of first-place finishes. And now Rizzo, who received a two-year, $8-million extension at the start of this season, is left to sift through the fallout.

“We decided this is the right course of action,’’ he said. “We felt this was the best way to facilitate what we’re trying to do, not only in 2018 but beyond. The money that we are making from the cash considerations goes straight into procuring talent for us to compete in the future.’’

For Rizzo to bring up money was an unexpected alibi, given that the Lerner family is considered among the richest ownership groups in pro sports, at a net worth of $4.9 billion, according to Forbes. Cash has never been a problem for the Nationals, who feature a rotation of Max Scherzer ($210 million, seven years) and Stephen Strasburg ($175M, seven years) on a payroll that was the fifth-highest in the sport this season.

And while we’re on the subject, Mark Lerner, the club’s managing principal owner, felt it necessary to address the disappointed fan base after last week’s sell-off, if only on the team’s official blog. It’s an unchallenged viewpoint, obviously, without giving the media an opportunity to probe for more answers. But occasionally hearing a voice from the person who writes the checks can be helpful in relaying some sort of public message.

“We gambled at the deadline, I admit it,” Lerner said in his statement. “We believed that the talent was still there, and that we would just need inspired play and a few lucky breaks. The decision then was driven by heart and our desire to give this team every opportunity to turn the season around. We believed we were a few wins and a few breaks away from making a turn in the season, a few games from making a run for the top.

“When something isn’t working, you evaluate the situation and take the necessary steps to improve it. You don’t just stand by, cross your fingers and hope for the best. Unfortunately, in this case, that means making very tough decisions about our roster.”

To be fair, the Nationals’ roster has been in shambles for much of this season. Injuries impact every team over a 162-game schedule, but some more than others, and there can be a number of reasons for that, from mismanagement to simple bad luck.

The Mets routinely have seasons sabotaged by the disabled list, and in the case of the Nationals this year, their poor health certainly was a contributing factor.

The Nationals lost 13 players who would be considered regulars, many for substantial periods, for a cumulative total of 602 days swallowed by the DL.

Murphy missed the first 11 weeks of the season as he recovered from offseason microfracture surgery on his knee. Strasburg has made only 15 starts because of shoulder inflammation and a nerve impingement in his back. The bullpen suffered prolonged absences by as many as five of its best arms. Even Victor Robles — the Nats’ top prospect, ahead of Juan Soto at the start of the year — missed most of this season after suffering a hyperextended left elbow in April.

Now that the 2018 Nationals are virtually done and Harper is halfway out the door, it’s worth questioning if D.C.’s rule of the East is just about over, too. Given their resources, however, that would be premature.

“The good news is this is not a rebuilding effort,” Lerner said in the statement. “Most importantly  —  our goal has not changed   — we want to bring a World Series trophy home to Washington, D.C. I truly believe the actions we are taking now will strengthen the franchise and keep us in the position of being a perennial contender.”

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