The Washington Nationals are ready to take directions after a 2013 disaster movie

After a disappointing season last year, the Nationals have made some big changes, but Thomas Boswell thinks the newfound maturity of the players will keep them from repeating last year's mistakes. (Whitney Leaming/The Washington Post)
Thomas Boswell
Columnist February 27

Failure has its uses. If an actor wins an Oscar, in his next movie it may be tough for the director to say, “No, let’s do it this way instead.” But if his last flick was a dud, he may think, “Let’s just get this right. No ego, amigo.”

The Washington Nationals are ready to take direction. Few rookie managers are as lucky as Matt Williams, who under other circumstances might have a hard time getting every player, including his stars, to buy into his rewrites of their parts in the 2013 disaster movie, “World Series or Bust.”

Tom Boswell is a Washington Post sports columnist. View Archive

If the Nats had been better or luckier last year, sneaked into the playoffs and made some noise, the Big Marine might have trouble with close-order drill in February. We were pretty good last year; why is this guy all over us?

Instead, that disappointing 86-76 year has allowed the personalities of the team’s best players to set this year’s tone. Ryan Zimmerman doesn’t look like he has pickles in his mouth when he talks about taking grounders at first base if that helps the team. Meanwhile, Adam LaRoche isn’t fighting the idea of Zimmerman taking his spot while he sits out a few games against tough left-handers.

Jayson Werth, Denard Span and Bryce Harper haven’t grumped yet about the plan to keep Nate McLouth sharp with a couple of starts a week, switching him to any of the three outfield spots so they all get days off.

“I know Bryce wants to play all 162 games,” Williams said gently before making it clear it won’t happen.

Nobody has whined about the “open competition” at second base between Anthony Rendon and Danny Espinosa or a three-way tussle for the fifth rotation spot among Ross Detwiler, Tanner Roark and Taylor Jordan. If the stars are on board, so is everybody else.

The Dudley Do-Rights have controlled the clubhouse ever since General Manager Mike Rizzo got control of personnel. But now the Nats sound like a Maoist self-criticism class. Stephen Strasburg says he has a lot to learn about holding runners, and Gio Gonzalez volunteers that he needs to cover first base better. Rafael Soriano showed up with no tummy as part of his untuck.

To a degree, last year’s Nats were victims of their 98-win success in ’12. Proper baseball decorum dictates that you show confidence in a 100-RBI first baseman when he’s slumping the next year or ignore bad throws by a third baseman who played for months with cortisone shots in his shoulder in a pennant race. Harper played in 165 games at age 19, so why wouldn’t you believe he “knew his own body” when he talked himself back into the lineup three times last year — all prematurely.

If ’12 became a weight in ’13, then last year is now a spur for ’14. That guarantees nothing. But it beats the spring training attitude of last season: We’re a no-weakness team that just needs to show up and play hard. Now Williams adopts an Ian Desmond phrase: “We need to sharpen our tools.”

That sharp edge will be needed because the Nats are entering a period in which they will probably be contenders for several years. Their pitching pipeline may give them talent, flexibility and trade possibilities for years. But they are not clear favorites, especially in light of the Dodgers’ wealth — and the Cardinals’ and Braves’ farm systems.

This should be a period of great fun in D.C. baseball, the best in 80 years, but it will also be an era with constant tension and awareness of the twists of fate befalling rival franchises. The Nats are in the center of the frame, but they’re not alone.

The Vegas chalk now says the Dodgers, Cardinals, Nationals and Braves will win 92.5, 90.5, 88.5 and 87.5 games. The Tigers (89.5) are the only American League team ahead of the Nats. The Reds, Giants or (less likely) the depleted Pirates aren’t far back. So it looks like a seven-team jam for five playoff spots with a big gap back to the rest. Overall, those are excellent odds — unless you turn out to be the sixth-best team, as the Nats were last year.

Thwarted teams find it far easier to identify and attempt to fix problems than clubs that spend the winter getting slapped on the back. The Nats traded for a far better fourth starter and a top backup catcher as well as buying a good extra outfielder — all much needed.

Any trip to the World Series is going to go through cable-TV rich Chavez Ravine, probably for a long time. So how did the happy Dodgers, preseason darlings after a torrid second half, view themselves? Like the Nats a year earlier, they didn’t see much need for change. Get full seasons, not half-seasons, out of Hanley Ramirez, Yasiel Puig and Matt Kemp, then stomp folks flat. Give strategy-challenged Don Mattingly a three-year deal so he can command the room and the job is done. Maybe that’s correct.

But how, with so many deep NL rotations, can Los Angeles fill its last two spots from a group that includes Paul Maholm and two former stars who’ve looked worn out the past two years: Dan Haren (22-27, 4.50 ERA) and Josh Beckett (7-19, 4.76)?

After generations of waiting, D.C. is at the point where every major move in the sport impacts the team on South Capitol Street. So yet another of the year-round pleasures and strains of being a fan has come to town. (Anybody hear whether the last big free agent, Ervin Santana, has signed yet?)

It’s now Washington news when the Pirates get much weaker or the Braves lose leaders. But so is all the talent arriving in other cities, like the Reds’ human blur, Billy Hamilton, who has stolen 346 bases the past three years at all levels, or the Pirates’ Gerrit Cole, with Strasburgian stuff.

The Nats’ rise to contender was exhilarating. Now comes another new experience — fighting it out, year after year, with the other top teams within sight of the same mountaintop. As the Cardinals develop Michael Wacha and Shelby Miller, the Nats will need answers such as Sammy Solis and Lucas Giolito.

And they need to do it together, with “What’s best for our movie?” as the first question.

These days, with the first exhibition game scheduled for Friday, the Nats learn their lines and take their marks. But this season is slightly different. If Matt Williams barks, “Cut! Let’s do it again,” they’ll know why.

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

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