No real pennant race ever is. The Nats, even though they are four games ahead of Atlanta with seven to play, are in a genuine battle. Everything in late-season baseball works against the pursued and in favor of the pursuer. The chaser is forced, by desperation, to focus on one game, one pitch at a time. That’s the right way to play baseball. The team with the lead is often distracted by praise, magic numbers or hoping the other team will lose; instead of (all together) focusing entirely on the next pitch, play or game.
If you watch the Nationals these days between your fingers, if you take walks to get away from the TV, if you invent good-luck charms or incantations — who thought Washington baseball fans would ever need such things — you’re not choking. You’re just living in the real world.
If you saw the Nats blast three homers in Philadelphia on Wednesday night for a 5-0 lead, but didn’t lose any days off your life as the Phillies clawed back to 5-4 (and the Braves posted another win), then you have better late-inning medications than most of us.
When Jayson Werth, with the Phillies crowd booing, singled home a pair of two-out insurance runs in the ninth, then circled the bases for an 8-4 lead on Bryce Harper’s triple, you could almost hear every Nats fan exhale.
For countless people, generations of them actually, this has been a summer with a nothing-can-spoil-it glow. “Happy” works when the Nats go 14-4 to start April and lead the NL East for all but 10 days of the season.
But these final days, even with that euphemism “a healthy lead,” even when the Nats have already clinched the first wild-card spot, are likely to put fans through a facsimile of the emotional wringer that the players endure.
Why take such a cautious view when statisticians say the Nats entered Wednesday night’s game with a 96.5 percent chance of winning the NL East?
Because I’ve been here before, 15 years ago, with an exceptional team managed by Davey Johnson. Those 1997 Orioles won 98 games and dethroned the AL East powerhouse Yankees. But I learned that it’s often in the nature of leads to dwindle, even if they never disappear. Those Birds led by 91
2 games with 23 left, by 71
2 games with 17 left and by five games with only eight games left. You may notice the parallels with the 2012 Nats, who arrived in Philadelphia this week leading by five games with nine to play.
What happened? On the next-to-last day of the season, the Orioles’ lead was down to two games with two to play and they trailed 4-2 in the ninth inning on the road. Three more outs and they’d have a one-game lead over the Yankees with one to play. Much tension? Oh, yeah.
The Brewers brought in Doug Jones, one of the best relievers in history (303 saves, 21st all-time). He didn’t save that one. Mike Bordick singled, Brady Anderson doubled and Roberto Alomar homered for the clinch.
With one day to spare. And that’s a success story. The Birds won the division series and fell just two wins shy of the World Series. Davey got Manager of the Year. (And the boot.)
So you might not throw away any tickets to the Phillies series next Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday at Nats Park. You might even buy some. And the Nats would do themselves no harm to take a lesson and prepare to battle for as many games as necessary. Superb teams often get pushed to the wire.
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/