Reasons to be concerned about the Washington Nationals, even if they won’t last

The Nationals are hitting well—for now. When will the dreadful fielding and injury woes catch up? The Post’s Adam Kilgore discusses the early highs and lows for the team. (Post Sports Live/The Washington Post)
Thomas Boswell
Columnist April 17

April is the month for panic. Why waste it? By May much of this fun will be null and void. So let’s go!

Are the Nationals choking dogs, even if they are our choking dogs? Will they ever stand up to a team of roughly equal talent such as the Braves and Cardinals?

Tom Boswell is a Washington Post sports columnist. View Archive

The Nats’ bench cleared this week in Miami, a rarity. Nothing happened. Are they just inert?

Is Matt Williams over his head as a manager, sending runners to their demise and stars such as Ryan Zimmerman to the disabled list in a bizarre quest for a few extra bases with crazy over-aggression? Why send a promising rookie with a 0.00 ERA to the minors just to get a fresh arm for one day? Hyper much?

Is Stephen Strasburg losing his fastball? Every year his velocity drops: 97.6, 96.0, 95.8, 95.2 and 94.0.

Is Wilson Ramos not just unlucky but injury prone, a player who’ll never stay healthy and be a star? Bryce Harper has made two all-star teams and 700 commercials. When will he actually have a star year?

Are the Nats’ pulled muscles, which have put Harper, Jayson Werth and Nate McLouth out, and bad starting rotation by-products of the Nats’ anti-Davey boot-camp spring training?

The Nats lead the majors in errors. What happened to back-to-basics?

It would be easy to go on about this National abomination except the team is 9-7 despite tons of injuries. After a four-error, brain-cramp-filled 8-0 loss to the Cardinals on Thursday, they’re still — gasp, cough, Heimlich, please — on a 91-win pace. Provided they only face the Mets and Marlins.

For baseball fans, April is insanely entertaining but also terrifying. You can justify almost any conclusion based on just enough evidence to seem brilliant by season’s end. Or look like a complete idiot. Of the questions above, all phrased at their nastiest, I bet a couple of them will be dismally accurate. And all the others nonsense.

The Nationals, after a borderline disgraceful 1-5 showing this month against a Braves team without three-fifths of its starting rotation, should want an opportunity to answer those questions as quickly as possible. And they have it in the Cardinals, the team that has bothered them perhaps as much as the Braves the past two seasons.

So how did the Nats welcome St. Louis to a four-game series at Nationals Park on Thursday night? With open arms and empty gloves. Ian Desmond and Taylor Jordan botched basic plays on two groundballs to start the game. The jitters helped the Nats dig themselves a 3-0 hole after one inning. Remember last weekend? Similarly nervous innings early in the game had the Nats trailing 4-0, 4-1 and 6-0. Good thing GM Mike Rizzo said of the Braves, “We think we are the better team.” Is that Natitude?

Here’s the good news: Every team chokes sometimes. It’s not a permanent condition and can disappear fast. Bad news: The bug can go dormant, like malaria, and return the next time your system is stressed. For example, in 2012, an awful series in June against the Yankees was forgotten. In 2013, those periodic collapses did not stop until August. Game 5 against the Cardinals, 800 pounds and hairy, came between.

After what he called the Nats’ worst game of the season, Williams spoke to the team afterward. What did he say? “That’s for me and my team,” he said, still red-faced. No Nat would talk about it. But most players waited near their locker to be interviewed, perhaps on orders about owning up to stinking it up.

The next three days will bring the Nats’ biggest strength — but so far biggest problem — into focus. Their starting rotation, touted as baseball’s best before Doug Fister got hurt, started the day with the fifth-worst starter’s ERA in MLB. It has neutered much of the good work of an improved deep bullpen.

Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann and Strasburg are the core of the team, better at their jobs than perhaps any everyday player is at his. If they’re not leading the way, there is no parade. Starting Friday, they will be interrogated by the Cardinals. Gio panicked in Game 5 of the 2012 playoffs, and the Cardinals said so after he lasted just five innings and couldn’t defend a 6-0 lead. On Sunday, trying to avoid a sweep in Atlanta, Gonzalez opened with a walk and a wild throw on a sacrifice bunt, and he allowed six runs in the first two innings.

Zimmermann had such problems with the Cardinals two years ago that he said they might own him. Rosters changed. Without Carlos Beltran and David Freese, do they still? Strasburg’s velocity is worth a mini-fret. But most power pitchers gradually lose speed through their 20s, and everyone’s velocity is down in April. Besides, with a slider (12 percent of his pitches) added to his curve and change-up, his strikeout percentage is up more than any pitcher in MLB this year (+10.7) to a nutty 36.8 percent of all hitters he faces. If swings and misses measure total stuff, Strasburg is adding pieces, not subtracting.

The well-schooled Cardinals are also a test for Williams’s base-path aggression. The Nats seldom steal. That’s good; Yadier Molina seldom allows it. Can they run on the other eight Cardinals, at least judiciously, not “run-till-they-tag-you,” which is not actually a baseball theory and, when it fails, not amusing.

Panic is juicy. But because the Nats are on a 91-win pace, let’s ask a couple of questions with rosy spin.

Has any team had better news for its future than the Nats — albeit with April asterisks — with Anthony Rendon breaking out and Danny Espinosa returning, high-ceiling-stuff Aaron Barrett and Blake Treinen lengthening the bullpen and Zach Walters and Steven Souza Jr. blasting their way up from Class AAA? Tanner Roark and Taylor Jordan still look like helpful back-end starters. That is, potentially, 50 seasons worth of good team-controlled players.

The Nats excel at acquiring and developing pitchers, such as Lucas Giolito, now at Class A Hagerstown, but they’ve had to buy hitters such as Werth or Adam LaRoche. Except for unavoidably obvious first-round picks Zimmerman and Harper, they haven’t drafted or traded for a durable young star hitter since they arrived here. Out of Rendon (probably), Walters and Souza (maybe), you’ll see at least one perennial No. 2, 3, 4 or 5 bat. Walters, who former manager Davey Johnson said would be a star, came for Jason Marquis. Souza was a No. 100 draft pick.

Teams create their own internal season narrative, then continue to live it out. Trends in motion tend to stay in motion. Starting on opening day when the Nats trailed 3-0 but won and continuing to Wednesday when they trailed 3-0 against Miami star Jose Fernandez in the sixth inning but won, they’ve been a relentless comeback team.

The bullpen has held the fort while a persistent attack patiently probes. The Nats started the Cardinals series ranked fourth in baseball in runs per game (5.13) and second in on-base-plus-slugging. Good is easy to miss. Since the day Rick Schu took over as hitting coach last July and relaxed wrinkled cortexes, Washington has outscored every team in MLB, even St. Louis.

Baseball has always been the sport that rewards teams with patience and confident, slowly formed judgments. Performance, once established, usually recurs. Short time frames, even 10 percent of a season, where the Nats now are, are just glimpses. Wait, wait. Let injuries heal. May will bring back Zimmerman and Ramos and mark the arrival of Fister. What is too improbable to continue probably won’t.

Meanwhile, the urgent yin to patience’s yang, there’s a game tonight, tomorrow and the next day. The questions, kind and cold, don’t go away. The answers wait but not forever.

For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.

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