Nationals top Phillies, but still must overcome ingrained culture of losing


High-priced, free-agent right fielder Jayson Werth is among the high-profile members in the Washington organization under pressure to try and turn around the atmosphere of losing that has hung over the Nationals’ clubhouse for years. (Nick Wass/Associated Press)
Columnist June 1, 2011

After the Nationals lost to the Phillies on Memorial Day, the clubhouse was silent and devoid of any figure with real authority in the organization. No Lerners. Stan Kasten, the brains and the bile of the operation for five years, as well as the team’s chief damage control officer, resigned last year. General Manager Mike Rizzo was in parts unknown scouting for the draft, reachable only by sled dog. Manager Jim Riggleman, after a week of fussing with umps and players, was in his office.

Players? Forget it. Ryan Zimmerman, a clubhouse spokesman since he was 22, was in Florida rehabbing an injury. Adam Dunn, who took the heat at his locker when he or the team stunk, is gone. Jayson Werth, who’d fanned in a key two-on, two-out showdown with ex-teammate Roy Halladay, didn’t speak. “Sometimes I feel like talking,” Werth said on Wednesday. “And sometimes I don’t.”

Tom Boswell is a Washington Post sports columnist. View Archive

What happened to accountability, leadership or stars taking the gaff in tough times?

Reliever Sean Burnett, alone, absorbed the burden, saying: “I feel terrible. We had it won if I get the lefties [out] I’m supposed to get.” With 10 losses in 12 games, a fragile team’s season felt like it was on the verge of spiraling downward. Next up, Cliff Lee and Roy Oswalt, with Phillies fans out-cheering Nats fans in their own park.

And nobody was home to stop the free fall.

“That was our rock-bottom day. For two weeks we’d been losing by one run, looking over our shoulders. We had to get our heads out of the dirt,” Tyler Clippard said after he pitched two scoreless innings on Wednesday in a 2-1 Nats win to bounce back and take the Philadelphia series despite facing Halladay, Lee and Oswalt in succession.

Since Kasten and Dunn left, then Zimmerman was gone for 10 weeks, you knew the moment would come when the Nationals faced an unexpected authority vacuum during a crisis. The question was how they would react, if they would recognize the problem and who would step into the void. Somewhat to my surprise, but to their credit, Rizzo and Riggleman appear to have applied for the job.

Before the next night’s game, Rizzo was back, stunned by all the brush fires he found. Riggleman called a team meeting to say: “Let’s put that behind us, what’s happened so far. . . . Let’s really be united in the clubhouse. Don’t let a few losses take us down and get us into a rut that we’ve fallen into the last few years.” Veterans also spoke.

On Monday, from his scouting safari, Rizzo joked, “I can’t tell you where I am until after the draft, but they don’t have TV here.” But by Tuesday, he was back at Nats Park “having more meetings than Congress” and seemed to sense he’d been in the wrong place at the wrong time.

“It was a tough time,” he said. “You could be in contact with your staff via phone as much as you want. But you’re not there. You’re not in the trenches here with the guys, especially when they need you. They need me more when they’re struggling than when they’re doing well. It was difficult.”

It was also a mistake. Instead of scouting for players who might help in 2015, he should have been back home hosing down the Nats’ roof as the wildfires approached. Such circle-the-wagons tactics don’t necessarily work, even for a few days. This time, they did. And the Nats are lucky. Rookie Danny Espinosa had to hit two homers off Lee in a 10-2 win on Tuesday, and on Wednesday, Laynce Nix hit a tiebreaking homer off Oswalt, then saved three runs with a layout face-plant catch in the gap that would’ve made Rickey Henderson proud but should’ve been completely impossible for Nix.

“We got on the same page,” reliever Drew Storen said after striking out Nats nemesis Placido Polanco to send Phils fans back home with a series loss.

Werth may not talk at the traditional times that other highly paid stars have chosen, but when he speaks, he is third-generation baseball smart. Like Rizzo, he’s concerned with the culture of losing that engulfs and attempts to define any franchise that loses 478 games in five years.

“It’s an air, an energy. You can feel it. It’s just a ‘thing’ that’s there,” Werth said of that pervasive losing atmosphere that can take years to change. “No one person or part of the team is responsible — not the staff, ownership or particular players.

“It’s not something people will understand. But it’s an ‘It’ factor. You get to the late innings of a close game and you think: ‘We aren’t going to make mistakes. They are. We are going to win,’ ”

Werth added: “The change [to a winning culture] doesn’t happen overnight. It culminates in its own way. Coming down the stretch in ’07 with the Phils, we couldn’t lose and the Mets couldn’t win. That’s when it changed for the Phillies. That gave that team an engine to run on in ’08 and ’09 and ’10.”

Maybe, to a degree, Werth is spinning his vague and, to some, manager-undermining comments of a week ago concerning the need for “change.” But he’s earnest, too. When your grandfather, uncle and stepfather were all big leaguers, you are brought up to believe in team cultures and shifts in the narrative of a franchise’s history.

Monday’s clubhouse scene, and the Nats’ whirlwind of backroom activity since, documents a problem with leadership that isn’t going to go away just because the Nats finally won a series from the Phillies.

Ted Lerner will stay invisible. Mark Lerner is conflict-averse. Though he has a five-year contract, Rizzo’s never run a team without Kasten in the wings. Any losing streak puts Riggleman under a microscope. Werth brings edge, but a bearded dude in a “Duh, Winning” T-shirt is probably not going to embrace the daily root canal of being the face of the franchise. Leave it to Zim.

The Nats head west for 11 games in high spirits. Well deserved. But before this franchise eventually gets where it wants to go, an ingrained culture of losing will have to change. That starts with better leadership, at all levels. That’s vague, like Werth’s “It” factor. But it’s also real. And the Nationals don’t have “It” yet.

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