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Posted at 11:54 AM ET, 08/13/2012

Boswell: Nationals winning ways put them in good position

In his online chat on Monday, a reader asked columnist Thomas Boswell:

Boz,The difference between an okay team and a truly good (or excellent team) is the ability to not play down to the competition, and to beat bad teams when they should. Well — a 9-2 stretch vs. the given-up Marlins, the AAA Astros, and an underachieving Diamondbacks team would qualify, wouldn't it? And the credit really has to go to the hitting! The pitching has remained excellent of course (though with rough patches throughout the rotation during those three series), but having Zim, Morse, and LaRoche 3-4-5 and mashing really changes the complexion of the lineup.Unrelatedly, but: the Nats are really never gonna hear the end of the shut-Stras-down second-guessing unless they sweet the World Series, are they?

Boswell responded with:

As I've often said, you make your season with two or three winning streaks where you go +10. The Nats now have a 14-4 streak in spring and a 16-4 thru Saturday nite's win. The other key is to avoid the -10 streak. They have. But what's amazing is if the Nats now went on an 0-11 streak, starting Sunday, then won their next game to end the slump, they'd be 72-54. If they played 16-20 ball after that, they'd still be 88-74 and probably be a wildcard. That's NOT the goal. But if shows how important their good play against bad-to-mediocre teams has been. They've almost taken the Total Disaster scenario — miss the playoffs entirely — off the table.

I do want to intruduce a note of sanity in the current Nats enthusiasm. What is it WORTH to have the best record in the N.L. after play on August 12th? I looked back on the last 10 years. Only ONE N.L. team in the Nats current position went on to reach the World Series and NONE won it. The postseason format is, as everybody says, a crapshoot. The 10 A.L. teams that led their whole league on 8/12 did better — 4 went to the Series and three won it. Still, for all 20 teams in the Nats current spot, only 3 won the Series and only 5 (25% went). And three of them faded so badly that — under the current four-wild card setup — they would have made the postseason as the FINAL WC. That inherent capriciousness in October baseball is another reason that the "Go For It" folks who want Strasburg to pitch 240 innings this year (after 44 last year) aren't being very sensible.  

However, there's another side of the coin. Being without Strasburg is an true negative but not an unmitigated negative. At one level, it's a nice break, too. It’s almost a law that all conspicuous teams or performers have to have a “controversy” — while it’s real or not — attached to them. If one doesn’t exist, it will be invented.

For the next few weeks, the dopes — sorry, the truth tellers — can focus on what, to the Nats’ front office, is a non-issue. Now the Nats players themselves are going to have mixed feelings about being without Strasburg. They won't “like it.” What's to like? But they saw how the team treated Jordan Zimmermann’s recovery last year. It worked spectacularly. It was best for Zimmermann and best for the teams. The results are on view every five days. Ballplayers know that the best available decision in a game doesn’t insure a favorable outcome. You can send up the right pinch hitter and he strikes out. But you still send up the proper guy. You do it the right way — according to your best-estimate view of what the right way is — then you live with it. 

The last thing a new-face team needs in September is accurate criticism. You could ask why the Nats can’t stop the running game even with a catcher in Kurt Suzuki, who was one of the best right up until the day he had to cope with the jumps that Nat pitchers allowed. Or we could have a rush-and-ruin debate about Bryce Harper. The Jayson Werth and Ryan Zimmerman could be measured, every millisecond, by their $125 million deals.

Now, none of that will happen. Or is will happen at much lower decibel levels. Even after Strasburg has stopped pitching, the critics will keep talking about it every time the Nats lose. It’s unlikely to bother the Nats. It will probably just annoy them — in a good we’ll-show-’em way. It’s a potential pressure reducer. Every time someone says, “Oh, woe, what could they have done with Strasburg?” the Nats have the choice to think, “Yeah, well, maybe we’ll show you what we can do with the 25 we have.” Will they respond that way? We'll see.

      The dream late-season pressure scenario for a baseball team is to have the manager or, in this case, the general manager, pre-selected as the target of criticism for any failure, rather than the players themselves. If the Nats lose, it’ll be Rizzo’s fault, well, sort of. If they win the division or play for the pennant or even get to the Series, they’ll get even more credit because there was no Strasburg.

If they lose Game 7 of the Series, Rizzo will just have to live with it, as he accepts his executive of the year award.

Everybody will have their own response. There is no “correct” set of feelings on something as basic as the first Excellent Baseball Team in Washington since the ’30’s. I plan to enjoy it. Be critical and analytical, but in the context of the town having a fresh and extremely positive experience.

By Washington Post Sports Editors  |  11:54 AM ET, 08/13/2012

 
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