For Nats fans, time to think about next year

Thomas Boswell
Columnist October 30, 2012

As if Washington fans haven’t had enough new experiences in the past seven months, they are about to have another one for the next five months: wondering whether and how the Nationals might win the ’13 pennant.

The Giants celebrated their second World Series title in three years with their sweep Sunday in Detroit, and theydeserved everything they got. Nobody else can make backhanded claims to a “near” title. But several teams are right on their tail.

Tom Boswell is a Washington Post sports columnist. View Archive

If you lost to the Giants head-to-head, like the Reds and Cards, you blew your shot. If you didn’t make it out of the division series, like the Nats, you weren’t that close, no matter what you think. And the Tigers, after sweeping the Yankees, were obviously the best the American League could offer. They got their doors blown off in four games. So the AL has no gripe, either.

But the Giants are no dynasty. They’re a fine team that’s averaged 91 wins since Matt Cain, Tim Lincecum, Madison Bumgarner and Barry Zito were joined three years ago. They have a pitching-defense-and-fundamentals tilt that works in October. But other styles have won titles for 100 years, too.

As long as the Giants have most of their current pitching staff, plus MVP-quality catcher Buster Posey, they’ll be a playoff force. However, a half-dozen other teams have every reason to think they’re a couple of new players, and a couple of October breaks, away from champagne in 365 days.

Entering this offseason, the Nats have one big advantage: No team in baseball is going to improve as much simply by being one year older. Many teams have nice rookies like Tyler Moore and Steve Lombardozzi or a young regular like Danny Espinosa trying to make the jump to an elite level in his third full year, as Ian Desmond did last season. But nobody else has Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper on the brink. Maybe nobody ever has.

Strasburg is already a very good pitcher with a 21-10 record, 2.94 ERA and 313 strikeouts in 2511 / 3 innings over 45 starts. But that is not a great pitcher. He has seldom gone more than six innings, and he faded in his last 10 starts (4.14 ERA). That’s typical of pitchers recovering from elbow surgery. In his last starts, he was going on fumes, painful to watch. Presumably, greatness is the next step. But that has to be proved, not postulated.

Watching Harper’s development next year or two may be one of the sports memories of a lifetime. At 19, he was a stat clone of Mickey Mantle (but a hair better) and a notch above Ken Griffey Jr., at that age. Across the board, he most resembles Willie Mays at 20. No disrespect to the game’s immortals, but those are just facts.

Harper, .270 with 22 homers and 98 runs, isn’t even a major star yet (no matter what wins-above-replacement says). Neither were those others at that age, but they were just months away, such as Mike Trout erupting at 20. Harper will either become the thing he always dreamed of, which will require adjustments and maturity. Or he won’t, which will demand even more.

In the wake of the bitterest defeat that any team suffered in the entire ’12 season, the Nats’ biggest offseason challenge will be managing the aftershock of heartbreak. The desire to assign blame for misery is enormous. But in team sports, the ability to resist it is essential.

All winter an irritable heat will surround four men in particular: GM Mike Rizzo for shutting down Strasburg; Gio Gonzalez for not defending a 6-0 lead like a 21-game winner in Game 5 of the Division Series; Drew Storen for blowing the save and getting the loss in the same game; and Manager Davey Johnson for not finding some way to hold that lead.

There are a hundred possible responses, but only one is constructive: Get over it.

Talk about easier said than done. If the Nats keep picking that scab, they’ll only reopen the wound. Few World Series winners reach their goal without several colossal disappointments. The 1976-to-’83 Orioles blew a three-games-to-one World Series lead; won 97 and 100 games and didn’t even make the playoffs; missed the ALCS on the last day of the season; and required eight years of beating their heads against walls to win the ’83 Series.

Those Orioles swallowed and digested many disappointments as galling as the one the Nats just absorbed. It drew them closer, bonded many of them for life and ultimately helped create a team of ferocious resolve. So, if the Nats can’t suck it up after one busted jaw, and have each other’s backs by the time they get to spring training, then they weren’t much anyway.

But the high likelihood is that they will learn and grow from the most common of baseball experiences: getting thrown off the roof in October.

If Washington is like most other cities, that experience will probably also have a dramatic and unexpected impact on the team’s fan base. It may be galvanizing rather than destructive.

This Nationals offseason will be informed by two indelible moments at Nats Park on the last two days of the season. One will be the silence after the last defeat. However, the other has ended up being more vivid for me, because it was so unexpected.

The crowds in St. Louis and San Francisco are two of the loudest, yet most civil, in the sport. The cities are very different, but their rabid fans are both models. The Nats crowds at Games 4 and 5 may, with some seasoning but not a great deal, get to the same general level. Knock me over with a rosin bag.

At Game 4, tied at 1 since the top of the third, the crowd in the lower bowl, and some of the upper deck, stood for 60 to 75 straight minutes from the top of the sixth inning, cheering Ross Detwiler’s final inning, until Jayson Werth’s walk-off home run in the ninth.

When Jordan Zimmermann came out of the bullpen and struck out the side on 12 pitches in the seventh, few could sit down. When Tyler Clippard struck out the side in the eighth, they were still up. When Storen fanned the first two hitters in the ninth, the nuttiness kept building. And of course, in the bottom of each inning, they had to stand to beg for the go-ahead run.

Who are these people? And where have they been for the last six years? The answer, perhaps, is not just that the fans had fallen for an appealing winning team, but that no Nats crowd had ever sensed before that they actually had a major impact on a vital game.

You don’t realize what that buzz is until you feel it yourself. Most people want to be part of it again. And in five months, they can be.

For previous columns by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/
boswell.

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