The reason you build the big lead in the first place is for scenarios like ’97.
At the very least, the next week will help prepare the Nats, the second-youngest team in baseball, for what comes next month. If they think a four-game lead with eight to play is stressful, wait until they face their best-case playoff scenario: a five-game division series with the first two on the road.
Pressure, in all its forms and at all its levels, right up to “almost unbearable” is a central part of baseball and should be.
Every great team starts as a lesser club that had to live and negotiate all those levels of stress so they could build coping mechanisms or find their core club leaders. Who stays calm and focused in the moment? Who rattles? Which players just ravenously enjoy competition? Not so much the winning, though everybody likes that, but the instant of competition itself. It’s a personality type. You never quite know who has it until . . . well . . . right now.
The Nats know these things and more. Johnson and vets such as Jayson Werth, Adam LaRoche and Edwin Jackson have talked about late-season baseball. That’s not the problem. Even after you hear the words, even if you “get it,” you still have to live it. And everybody experiences it differently.
The Nats have to learn what it feels like to walk in your stadium and see it covered in postseason bunting. You don’t know exactly how you feel about total national TV and media exposure until you experience it. And what about those guys on the other side, the older ones who’ve been through it, maybe many times? Is that really a big edge or just a small one?
What’s coming at them — and fast — starting right now with their trip through Philly and St. Louis is part of the Nationals’ inescapable future as one of the game’s most talented teams. The first big installment hits now, not some future year. That’s the price of going from .500 to .600 in one season.
The Nationals might win the World Series. But Las Vegas will give you 7 to 1 that, at some point, the Nats are going to be thwarted by a better team or their own inexperience or bad luck or no Strasburg. Or something. Between now and then, a month or so if we’re lucky, a week or so if we’re not, the Nats will provide us with almost unbearably tense entertainment and themselves with an education that they can get in no other way.
The Nats have an appointment with anxiety. It can’t be avoided. In fact, it should be embraced. It’s part of the process, usually a fairly long one that forges fine teams into eventual champions.
Sometimes, it’s pretty frightening. You may want to cover your eyes. But don’t. The scary parts are the best.
For previous columns by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/