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.
“Our whole dugout was ready to run onto the field” in mid-inning, Bryce Harper said of Jayson Werth’s go-ahead hit in the eighth.
“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.