WASHINGTON -- Washington Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo tried with all his might to conceal the white flag, but he couldn't.
It was simply too large. Too white. Too noisy, as it flapped in the wind of yet another D.C. storm in a summer that has been filled with storms. The dark clouds have hovered over Nats Park for much of the season, both literally and figuratively, a constant reminder of the tempestuous campaign the team has had.
Still, Rizzo sat there on Tuesday and tried to obscure the white flag. He tried to hide the fact that his club has all but given up on the 2018 season.
"I still think today, we have the talent base on this team to play competitive games at the end of the season," Rizzo said a half-hour after the Nationals announced that they had traded second baseman Daniel Murphy to the Chicago Cubs and shipped first baseman Matt Adams to the St. Louis Cardinals.
The moves were surprising, given that they came just three weeks after Nats ownership doubled down at the non-waiver trade deadline. Despite entering play on July 31 with a sub-.500 record (52-53) and a 5.5-game deficit in the National League East, the two-time defending division champs opted against breaking up the band. They decided not to sell off potentially profitable pieces such as Murphy and Adams, not to mention Bryce Harper and Gio Gonzalez and other free-agents-to-be, and instead pushed all their chips into the middle of the table.
"We just couldn't give up on this team," principal owner Mark Lerner said in an open letter that went out to fans on Aug. 1. Twenty days later, with his club still a game under .500 and with an even larger divisional deficit (7.5 games behind the Braves), Lerner and the front office essentially gave up. Not that you'd know it by listening to Rizzo. Or anyone else in the Nationals clubhouse.
"We're only 7½ games back," outfielder Bryce Harper said. "So we're going to play it 'til the end and see what happens."
Added first baseman Ryan Zimmerman: "By no means are we done."
Then there was manager Davey Martinez, who when asked how he would handle the messaging to a clubhouse that just lost two key roster pieces, said, "I've had guys already come into the office, and I don't think I need to convince them. They know what we're playing for, and they're all-in. We knew this coming in here, today's a big game, so they're fired up about playing today."
As if that weren't enough, Martinez said he spoke with Murphy and Adams and told them, "We'll see you in the playoffs."
In fairness to Rizzo and Harper and Zimmerman and Martinez, the chances of Washington making the playoffs are still greater than zero. They're at 12.2 percent, according to FanGraphs. What's more, the annals of sports history are littered (OK, maybe dappled is more accurate) with teams that went on a tear once the pressure of expectations was lifted off their shoulders.
Still, the comments from within the home clubhouse on Tuesday weren't consistent with white-flag behavior. In fact, they were more indicative of red-flag behavior -- an alarming symptom of a team that hasn't fully come to grips with reality.
Sure, you could argue that Washington might not lose much at second base, where Wilmer Difo steps in for Daniel Murphy, providing significantly less offense but inarguably better defense. Just like you could argue that with first baseman Ryan Zimmerman back to full health and swinging a hot stick and with Mark Reynolds backing him up, the Nationals could afford to part with Adams.
You could also argue that the Nats should have folded three weeks ago and gotten maximum value for all their tradable pieces. Or that since they've pushed it this far, they could have been well-served by waiting another week to see if they could make one last run before putting up the old yard-sale sign. But that's not what happened.
Washington called it quits in mid-August, fresh off a string of seven losses in 10 games, including a disappointing home series loss to the Marlins that culminated with Sunday's soul-crushing 12-1 defeat. Two days later, Murphy and Adams are gone, along with any playoff pulse the Nationals might have had. Given the return that the Nats got (one meh prospect and some cash), it's hard to view the moves as anything other than salary-dumping. And, of course, white flag-waving.
If you don't believe it, just look at what Mark Lerner wrote in another open letter to fans on Tuesday afternoon. "I believed in this team," the Nats' owner said, "and would have loved to see them all play healthy together this season." Note the conspicuous use of the word "believed" -- as in, the past tense of "believe."
"However," Lerner continued, "the time has come for us to make decisions that will bolster our roster for next season and beyond. ... Mike Rizzo and his team will be busy during the offseason making sure we have all of the pieces necessary to come back and be competitive next year."
Note the conspicuous use of "next year." As in, not "this year."
That's not to say the 2018 Nationals won't make a run. But if they do, they'll be running past a giant white flag.