That crash you heard this weekend was the smashing of a specific fantasy — that the Nats were fated, entitled, virtually ensured by dint of self-certified talent to rip off a winning streak before they sank their season. Just 10 games ago, that seemed likely. Now, after being swept by the Dodgers and scoring only five runs in three games, the burden of proof has shifted.
You can go 48-50, as the Nats are now, and still recover. In ’96, Davey Johnson’s Orioles were 50-51 on July 26 and won 88 games, which is about what the Nats probably need to win to make the playoffs, and ended up in the League Championship Series. It’s possible.
You can fall seven games out of the division lead yet mount a charge. You can show every sign of a team-wide gag on pressure and expectations, yet at some point get a punch in the nose that awakens or infuriates you. You can be one of the worst hitting and worst fielding teams in the majors, butcher fundamentals, treat basic base running like it’s tougher than solving cold fusion and still somehow find the light of a winning streak.
But can you do those things wrong and still make the playoffs if your manager admits he has no answers to the problems (except “patience”) and talks about a trip to Bora Bora next April with his wife? Can you do it if the GM is so snippy that, when asked whether Danny Espinosa might return from Class AAA to the majors, he acts like he can barely remember who Espinosa is? When everybody is this out of whack, just don’t make it worse.
Even if the Nats have a chance to add Jake Peavy of the White Sox or Yovani Gallardo of the Brewers, who both are under team control through ’14, the Nats should only make the deal based on the assumption that almost all of the value is for next year. With Ross Detwiler on the disabled list, rookie Taylor Jordan on an innings limit, Dan Haren dragging a 5.61 ERA, Ross Ohlendorf just a gritty stop-gap vet and Jordan Zimmermann, who gave up seven runs in two innings on Sunday, pitching through neck pain for two months, adding one pitcher may not be enough to stabilize this rotation.
Sometimes, a team, a manager or even a general manager deserves the vote of confidence that being an aggressive buyer at the July 31 trade deadline implies. They’ve earned the help. The Nats haven’t earned it.
They deserved all the praise they got last season and much of the syrup that was ladled on them this preseason. All that fun was real. Their talent is not a mirage. They still have enough ability on hand to redeem their season — if they can. But they haven’t shown enough poise, maturity or offensive punch to trade long-term assets to help their postseason chances now.
The Nats need to close ranks, not beg for reinforcements, because the core of this team will be together for one to four more years.
“We know it. We’re a really close team,” said Tyler Clippard (6-1, 1.90 ERA), one of the few Nats having a peak season. “That’s why this hurts so much.”
For a dozen key Nats, this is just the beginning. The beginning of what? That’s what they have to determine. They aren’t just trying to figure out what ails them right now so they can play better in August and September. This team frets constantly and often to excess. If they really want something to worry about, try this: what if ’14 and ’15 are more of the same?
“When I was in college, I interviewed [former Stanford and current 49ers Coach] Jim Harbaugh and asked him what his style of coaching was,” reliever Drew Storen said. “He said, ‘I coach by that line in ‘The Shawshank Redemption.’ You’ve got to crawl through the crap so you can get where you want to be.’
“That’s where we are now.”
That certainly characterizes the smell correctly.
Players named Zimmerman, Zimmermann, Strasburg, Harper, Desmond, Ramos, Gonzalez, Werth, Clippard, Storen, Rendon and others all probably will be here through ’15, many through ’17 and some longer. They need to suffer this out, live it out and figure it out. This is not a team that can be torn down and rebuilt. It’s still one of the youngest in baseball. If these are growing pains, they are brutal. But apparently they are necessary.
Some teams refuse to own the hole that they dug. Not the Nats. Oh, they own up. Their team-wide earnestness may even be part of their burden.
“Us talking about it is not going to do it. Just go out and win. We’re not scoring. It’s our fault,” Ryan Zimmerman said after the Nats stunk up the joint before 115,720 incriminating witnesses over the weekend. “It’s not that we are not trying.
“Pep talks don’t work for grown-ups.”
Clippard, an avid golfer who shot 75 at Merion this year, followed the British Open with all its staggering leaders and Phil Mickelson’s 66 to win. “I love golf because it’s similar to the psychology in baseball. Golfers have to learn to win on Tour. But then they have to learn how to win majors.”
So the Nats won tournaments and status last year but now must cope with “major tournament pressure?”
“Exactly right,” Clippard said. “We have to get comfortable in that environment.”
Just as in golf, it can take a painful amount of time.
“The progression we made last year was a gigantic leap,” Johnson said of the team’s rise from 80 to 98 wins in sequential seasons. “This year, a lot of different things have pulled us down a little.
“It’s not one thing, one person. The bench was young. We didn’t have left-handers in the bullpen at the start. Dan Haren had problems. We had lefties who usually hit well against left-handers, but this year they haven’t. Then injuries. It adds up,” said Johnson, who added he has had a bad year, too.
“They all draw down the energy,” Johnson said. “But as long as we are in a good frame of mind, I like this ballclub. It’s awfully professional.”
Its approach may be professional. And until the first pitch, it may be in a good frame of mind. After that, when it counts, the play borders on panicky.
“I’m not even going to entertain those [negative] questions. . . . I’m not getting into the gloom and doom stuff,” said Jayson Werth, whose two solo homers off Clayton Kershaw were the only dents for the Nats off the best pitcher in the major leagues.
“We’re a good team.”
For better or worse, the Nats have 10 more weeks,then probably a few of more seasons — all of them stuck t-o-g-e-t-h-e-r — to prove it.
For more from Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.