The trade deadline is arriving with the Nationals firmly entrenched as passive observers, not good enough to buy pieces and still too invested in their talent to sell. Manager Davey Johnson took stock this morning of how his team reached this point: 52-55, 10 games behind the Braves, 6 ½ games out of the second wild card spot, unfulfilled promise rippling through the clubhouse.
“I don’t regret saying ‘World Series or bust,’” Johnson said. “It looks more like bust. This is my last go-around, anyway. What I want to do is what’s best for the organization. I want this ball club to continue being a first-division ball club. The Lerner family has done. [Mike] Rizzo has done that. We’re just not holding up our end on the field. They’re going to run me out of here, anyway. But I am optimistic with this team.”
Johnson is not ready to declare the season a full-fledged bust yet, even if a 4-8 record since the all-star break has left the Nationals barely within earshot of the Braves.
“We do have the talent,” Johnson said. “We’re not out of this thing. We’re still in this fight. I like the way our schedule is racking up the rest of the way. We can do similar to what the Dodgers did. I like my talent here, too.”
The Dodgers have taken command of the NL West with a 27-6 run over their last 33 games. General Manager Mike Rizzo has also referenced the Dodgers’ streak as a point of hope for the Nationals.
First, they’re being pretty casual about how difficult it is for any team to rip off 27 wins in 33 games – it doesn’t just happen. Second, they’re bullish on a team that, no matter how talented it may be on paper, has actually outperformed its -27 run differential. Third, even if the Nationals went 27-6, all the Braves would have to do is play .500, and they’d still be tied with Washington with 21 games left in the season.
The Nationals may want to start with a more modest goal.
“Win series. Put together some winning streaks, like we’re fully capable of doing. Things will take care of itself,” Johnson said. “I feel we’re going to have to win over 90 games to get in the thing. But we just have to be consistently better all around. If we do that – and it starts on a daily basis – we’ll be fine.”
The Nationals will try, it seems, without any outside help. Johnson spoke with General Manager Mike Rizzo this morning. Their conversation mostly focused on the health of pitching coach Steve McCatty, who will be released from a Washington hospital after suffering from an irregular heartbeat.
“He’s always trying to do something to help the club,” Johnson said. “But he didn’t feel like there was anything imminent.”
Johnson still believes in the future of the Nationals’ organization as much now as he did when he uttered, “World Series or bust” back in December. He sees young arms who will contend for major league spots next spring and a gaggle of hitting prospects knocking on the door.
“We like the quality of the players we have here,” Johnson said. “Unfortunately, we’re not playing like we’re capable of across the board. We had to establish a lot of younger players in the lineup this year. A lot of guys didn’t perform – [Danny] Espinosa, some of these young guys coming off the bench.
“We’re still growing as an organization. To make a move to block somebody coming up next year, it doesn’t make any sense. You don’t just tear up the talent pool and make a big change for the sake of making change.”
Johnson may not be giving on this season. But he was frank about how the Nationals have gone from a World Series favorite to a team struggling to remain in postseason contention.
“Let’s be realistic,” Johnson said. “Forty percent of my rotation had some problems – [Ross] Detwiler’s back, [Dan] Haren had some problems. We had a little imbalance in the bullpen and we weren’t getting left-handers out. Some guys in the lineup, some guys in the bench, they were all hitting .200 after 200 at-bats. Same players. It’s more of a panic when all of a sudden if a guy struggles in a role he’s uncomfortable with when all these things didn’t pan out the way you’d like ‘em. You can start blaming everybody. But there have been some problems.”