You know it’s real when it’s 97 degrees at game time and a third straight big weekday crowd (29,551) shows up — nearly 85,000 for three dates with the high-talent low-draw Rays. When you’re in last place in mid-June, nothing matters. But in first place, everything matters.
Last week, the Nats swept two “big” series in Boston and Toronto to rocket higher in the national sports consciousness. Then they came home and were swept in a “big” weekend series against the Yankees as 124,000 fans watched. Then suddenly this Rays series became “big” because of the Maddon-Johnson spat. Next up, the “big” Nats-Orioles series.
Of course, seen from enough distance, these series aren’t that “big.” But a baseball season, once it trammels you up with its momentum and its unspooling narrative — Bryce Harper, at 19, may soon be the Nats’ best player — creates a sense that the long-term future constantly hangs in the balance of the near-term present.
When the late Edward Bennett Williams, former president of the Redskins, became owner of the Orioles, he was shocked that his busy life of law, politics and power brokering was deeply unsettled by the fluctuations of baseball team. “We play every day,” he said, “and I can’t stop watching.”
Fans take a different kind of ownership in a contending baseball team. But they seldom know its full impact until they’re caught up in it.
And it’s not just the details of their team’s players and games that matter. It’s the news about rivals that matters almost as much, especially in a division as close in talent as the NL East.
On Wednesday, the Braves’ best pitcher, Brandon Beachy (MLB co-leading 2.00 ERA), was told he needed Tommy John surgery and will be lost for at least a year. The Braves’ Jair Jurrjens had already been sent to Class AAA, where he was ineffective. Now he comes back up. Will the Braves have to trade for a major pitcher before July 31st?
In recent weeks, the Marlins have played so miserably that despite a 33-36 record they have been outscored by 60 runs. The Mets have needed an 11-1 start by knuckleballer R.A. Dickey to lurk 31
2 games behind the Nats. How long can they keep that up? And the Phillies, 81
2 games back, can’t really be that bad, can they?
Nationals fans, and Washingtonians, have never even had to consider such possibilities before. With reasonable health and the eventual return of Drew Storen, Jayson Werth and others, is it possible that their logical goal for this season ought to be revised to division champion, not “wild card, maybe?”
When such questions change so dramatically, then everything matters. The feeling surprises Nat players, too. “It’s nice to be in the top spot instead of 15 games out,” said Ryan Zimmerman, who’s been through all the worst times. “We still have a lot of room to improve. But we’ve got a good thing going. We have to keep it rolling to make all this stuff matter. Whoever wins this division at the end will be one heck of a team.”
How do you cope with a team on a 97-win pace? How do you place baseball among the habits of your life when, suddenly, everything that effects the team seems far more important than it did as recently as last year.
“All this is new to us,” too,” Zimmerman said. “But it’s a lot of fun.”
For previous columns by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.