Nationals face a little heat in the spotlight after sweep by Braves


Nationals catcher Kurt Suzuki, left, talks with pitcher Gio Gonzalez on the mound during the first inning of their game against the Braves at Nationals Park. Gonzalez gave up three runs in the first, and seven overall in Sunday’s 9-0 loss. (Evan Vucci/AP)
Jason Reid
Columnist April 14, 2013

An awful performance during an April series against the Atlanta Braves changes nothing in the long term for the Washington Nationals. Do we really need a daily reminder about how early it is?

As bad as they looked in the Braves’ three-game sweep — Sunday’s 9-0 clunker was a fitting finale — the Nationals still are the same loaded bunch that began the season believing October would be their best month. They’re all about the big picture.

Jason Reid is a sports columnist with the Washington Post. He joined the Post’s Redskins team in 2007 after 15 years covering many beats at the Los Angeles Times. View Archive

But for the first time at the start of a season, the Nationals also are in the national spotlight. They’re expected to win, which brings big pressure. It’s unlike any challenge the Nationals have faced since baseball returned to the District.

When you’re the chic pick of the media to win the World Series, falling apart (how else would you describe glaring breakdowns in every phase of the game?) in the first meeting against a National League East rival only increases the heat. It’s big news when things go poorly for the Nationals; that’s not supposed to happen often.

We’re about to find out whether the Nationals are up to the task of actually becoming great when they’re expected to be great. Facing a little adversity, this would be a good time for them to respond. Just remove the Braves’ boot and pitch, hit and field like the team they’re capable of being by the time season ends.

Even during 2012’s 98-win surprise, the Nationals had rocky moments. They overcame poor starts, shaky relief appearances and slumps to wind up atop the NL East. It’s different, though, when you’re pursued from the start.

Generally, star position players don’t think about expectations when they enter the batter’s box. Elite pitchers aren’t concerned with living up to the hype when they step on the mound. Everything, though, contributes to the difficulty of the drumbeat of the season, especially throughout a rough stretch.

Questions can start to creep in. Prolonged failure can ruin anyone’s confidence. Still, Manager Davey Johnson has no doubts about where the Nationals are headed.

In his office after the game, the straight shooter addressed the Nationals’ long list of mistakes against the Braves. Johnson acknowledged the series was, at times, as painful for him to watch as it must have been for the fans at Nationals Park. “Hey, it would have been fine by me if all you guys [reporters] just went home,” Johnson joked. “Sure not a whole lot I really wanted to talk about.”

And Johnson would be the first to agree that the Nationals are in new territory at the starting line. “Everyone knows what’s out there this season,” he said.

Johnson, though, views the club’s new standing in the early spotlight as merely part of the process of building a perennial winner. The Nationals want to face expectations from the outset of the season “because that says a lot about where you are as an organization,” Johnson said. “And when they’re not talking about you, that says a whole lot, too. I’ve been telling you this for a while now: I really like my ballclub.

“We’ve got the group I want. The talent is there. They’re motivated. Can the expectations come into it, where maybe a guy who had a good year last year [presses] a little bit the next year and [struggles]? Yeah. It can. But I’m not worried about that right now. We’ve just got to get the ship righted. But I’m not going to overreact.”

For the Nationals, the hot Braves couldn’t have left town fast enough.

Although it would be ridiculous for fans to give up on the Nationals after their opening series against the Braves, whom they will play 16 more games in the regular season, the Nationals aren’t close to the Braves’ level at this point. At 11-1, Atlanta has baseball’s best record. Even in a 162-game schedule, losing only once in 12 games is an impressive stretch.

Like the Nationals, the Braves were built with October in mind. They have a good batting order and strong pitching. The Nationals weren’t swept by the Miami Marlins.

In a showdown series, however, the team that’s supposed to be the NL’s best really didn’t show up. Poor relief pitching hurt the team on Friday. The Nationals’ offense disappeared for most of the series. And Sunday’s flop was an all-around effort — with starter Gio Gonzalez leading the way.

The Nationals needed Gonzalez to be a stopper. A quality start could have provided the foundation for the Nationals to salvage a game in the series. Instead, last season’s 21-game winner gave up three earned runs in the first and seven overall in a disappointing five-inning outing.

Gonzalez was a big part of a 2012 starting rotation that was as good as it gets in this era of baseball. Even more is expected from them. That’s just the way it works based on past results, but Johnson is waiting for the five-man group to find its groove again.

“The pitching, from the get-go last year, was lights out,” he said. “Now, we’re giving up a run and a half more a game. Sometimes, those things take some time.

“Do I think it’s the expectations? No. It’s just getting the talent worked out. It’s never always easy.”

The good news for the Nationals is that they have a lot of time to get it all worked out. And they definitely expect to.

For previous columns by Jason Reid, visit washingtonpost.com/
reid
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