If you think the Washington Nationals are hard to understand, imagine how the players themselves feel. They have little clue what’s happened to them or why.
Most of them think like fans. They won 98 games last year. They have 10 players who have been all-stars. All 10 are healthy and performing fairly well right now. Others — such as Denard Span, Wilson Ramos and Drew Storen, plus a bench that’s hitting .283 since the all-star break — are all hot.
So why couldn’t the Nats go on a run? Why couldn’t they sneak into the playoffs or at least finish strongly, with some dignity? They’ve just gone 17-8. With 23 games left, why not go 16-7 — or even better?
There’s a reason they probably won’t. But first, let’s get a sense of Nats whiplash. On Sunday after a comeback to avoid being swept by the decimated Mets, the clubhouse was almost as excited as last season.
“These are do-or-die games. I’ve been in this situation. I know it can be done,” said Werth, referring to the ’07 Phils who trailed by seven games with 17 to play but still won the NL East. “It’s a long hard road. But I believe.”
Later, Werth added, “Playing from the front is tough. Playing from the back is the best.”
So what happened next? The Nats bused to Philly and lost 3-2, in one of their most wasteful defeats of the year. The next night their 9-6 win was so hideous that Manager Davey Johnson said, “That’s not how you win pennants.”
After Wednesday night’s 3-2 win in Philadelphia, seven more road games remain against two of the most injury- and trade-depleted rosters you’ll ever see in Miami and New York. Then the Nats come home for 10 games. Name a top pitcher in the NL East: They’ll either miss his turn or he’s hurt. It’s cream-puff city.
Yet the Nats seldom avoid a heartbreaker implosion for more than a few days at a time. Make the playoffs? If they lose a few more tough ones, they’ll be playing rookies and might not even have a .500 record.
What on earth is going on? They haven’t quit. If anything, they try too hard. Two new Nats probably aren’t the problem. Rafael Soriano has converted 85 percent of his career save chances. This year, 86 percent. The last three years Span’s on-base-plus-slugging average was .702. This year, .709.
The day is coming when the Nats must evaluate this season. The team, and many of the rest of us, may be tempted to get it wrong. It would be a shame to squander the chance to use this year to grasp the sport just a little better.
Many, including me, tend to focus on the fate of top players. That’s why teams whose seasons don’t mirror the play of their stars often mystify us. Part of the dark magic of the game is that even after you analyze everything that can be measured, then given some vague weight to intangibles, many teams’ seasons still don’t seem to make sense. That is because no word is more central over six long months than “team.”
“Our problems this year isn’t about ‘losing our swagger.’ The ‘Natitude’ is still pretty good. The talent is here. Our clubhouse is good,” Johnson said. “But a team needs 25 players that function together and fill their roles, not 15 or 20 or even 22. All the parts have to fit.
“Last season wasn’t about ‘career years.’ Nobody went beyond what you might expect they could do. That team was special because everything fit. We had a strong bench, a balanced [left- and right-handed] bullpen. We didn’t have any [key] players who had terrible years. It was a complete team.
“This year, we’ve had chinks in our armor or leaks in the boat, whatever you want to call it. And I haven’t been able to fix them. The Braves had chinks, too. They lost two key relievers for the season early in the year. But they found ways to fix their problems.”
This year the Nats had many flaws: tight under pressure, careless at fundamentals. Also, a proper starting rotation isn’t five men with perhaps one extra arm. It’s having seven or eight big-league-ready starters in the organization. Still, this season likely will be remembered as month after month of watching the Nationals bleed out from paper cuts.
The far-under-.500 Angels, Blue Jays and Giants also had core talent and payroll that didn’t remotely approximate record. It happens every year. Baseball loves to foil “best-laid plans” because they usually focus on fixing the past. Then come new problems. Danny Espinosa can’t hit .200, and Ryan Zimmerman is ranked by FanGraphs as the worst defensive player in baseball.
“Early in the season, we had five guys on the bench all hitting about .150. McCatty said, ‘Just let our pitchers hit for themselves,’ ” Johnson said.
“You have to have a left side of the bullpen. We didn’t. For half a year Storen wasn’t Storen, and [Dan] Haren wasn’t Haren. Now it looks like they are again. We counted on Ryan Mattheus to be a key [middle-inning] reliever again. Then he punched his locker and broke his hand. Each chink adds up.”
Sometimes a team is its stars and not much more, like the Tigers riding Miguel Cabrera (130 RBI) and Max Scherzer (19-2). But usually you can’t explain an unexpected season — good or bad — until you parse its parts. Maybe that’s why baseball has far more regional than national appeal during the regular season.
You can’t explain Boston’s switch from 69-93 to a 96-win pace unless you know how Daniel Nava, Jonny Gomes, Junichi Tazawa and Craig Breslow glue things together. All of New England does. Oakland wouldn’t be a game out of first place without platoon players such as Seth Smith, John Jaso and Nate Freiman who won’t play often enough to be listed among “league leaders.”
At times the Nats get one component fixed. Since the All-Star Game the Nats’ lineup has been healthy, the bench solid and the “no-offense” gnats are actually second in the NL in OPS and near the top in scoring. But at the same time, the pitching has sprung leaks from port to starboard.
“There are still a few cracks in the dam,” Johnson said this week. “I need to plug them, and I’m running out of fingers.”
That’s his short view. His long-term perspective doesn’t include all those “cracks” or “chinks” or “leaks” that keep him up at night.
“The talent is here, and more is coming through the system soon,” Johnson said. “It could be a really fun time here in Washington.
“But it’s going to take 25.”
For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell .