Fans streamed out of Nationals Park in the latter innings, leaving swaths of empty blue seats. In a mostly barren clubhouse, starting pitcher Dan Haren shook his head and stared at the floor. Stephen Strasburg, the ace on the disabled list, sat facing the locker next to Haren and nodded blankly as pitching coach Steve McCatty whispered in his ear. A new boom box, brought by Jayson Werth to enhance the mood, had been switched off.
The Nationals entered the season under Johnson’s “World Series or Bust” banner, boasting a roster both experts and Nationals officials believed had improved after they won 98 games and a division title in 2012. More than a third of the way through the most anticipated baseball season in Washington’s history, though, the Nationals own a 29-30 record and sit in third place, behind both the Philadelphia Phillies and Atlanta Braves in the National League East.
The Nationals’ unexpected joyride in 2012 has yielded to a parade of injuries, underperformance, backfiring decisions and worst-case scenarios. On Monday, 20-year-old outfielder Bryce Harper will visit orthopedist James Andrews — the same surgeon who repaired Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III’s torn knee ligaments – for a second opinion on his swollen left knee. Thursday afternoon, despite 10 days of rest, Harper limped as he walked through the Nationals’ clubhouse.
Nationals players are resolute they can right their season. Tuesday night, after they had overcome a late-inning deficit for the first time all year, Werth said the disappointing first two months had not surprised him – he had told Johnson back in spring training to expect it.
“I kind of said, ‘We might be flat for a month or two,’ ” the outfielder said. “But I’ve got all the confidence in the world in this team. It’s just something you go through with a young team and guys finding their way in the league. We’ve got so much talent, sometimes it’s easy to get in your own way.”
But under the burden of new expectations, frustration has surfaced. Last month, reliever Ryan Mattheus broke his throwing hand when he punched his locker in San Diego. After the Nationals placed him on the disabled list this week, second baseman Danny Espinosa emptied his locker, nameplate and all. The tension he perceived promoted new closer Rafael Soriano to ask teammates how this year’s vibe compared to last year.
“I’ve even said, ‘What’s going on with this team? What’s going on?’ ” Soriano said. “‘Everyone is different. We’re not doing what we’re supposed to do. Give it some time.’ There’s no time. In Atlanta they’re winning and in Philadelphia. There’s no time for anything. We have to get at it.”
Baseball’s marathon season allows slow-starting teams ample opportunity to recover. Last year’s Detroit Tigers stood 27-32 after 59 games and captured the American League pennant. In 2011, the St. Louis Cardinals were 101
2 games out of a playoff spot in Late August and won the World Series. The Nationals trailed the Braves by 71
2 games entering Friday.
“When you look at the games played when you’re struggling, it feels like the season kinda drags on,” first baseman Adam LaRoche said. “It feels like we’ve played more than we have, just because of some of the injuries and waiting for these guys to get back and scuffling along. Yeah, we’ve got time to make a move, but we need to do it soon.”
In order for the Nationals to win 89 games – the average victory total for a team to make the postseason under the current format – they would have to play at a .583 winning percentage for the remainder of the season. The Nationals have offered no hint they could sustain that pace.
The most basic, and often most powerful, indicator of a team’s future performance is run differential — the number of runs a team has scored against the number it has allowed. The Nationals have been outscored by 34 runs, better than only eight of the 30 major league teams. They have played worse, not better, recently, winning only six of their past 17 games. And with Harper out of the starting lineup this year, the Nationals have gone 4-12.
In total, nine players, including Harper, Strasburg, Werth and third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, have missed a combined 219 days on the disabled list to date. The ailments have contributed to subpar performance across the board. The Nationals have scored fewer than all but one team, and no team reaches base with less frequency. Their defense has committed the second-most errors in the majors, led by Zimmerman’s 10, nine of which can be attributed to chronic throwing issues. Their reserves alleviated a rash of injuries last year; this year, it has only exacerbated them.
In his final year as the Nationals’ manager, Johnson, 70, has gone to desperate measures. In mid-May, he tried to coax more runs out of his lineup by growing a scraggly, white goatee, which he vowed not to shave until the Nationals had busted out. His wife, Susan, offered the following appraisal: “Oh, jeez.” Johnson finally shaved Tuesday night, after their first walk-off victory of the year. The next day, the Mets clobbered them.
Everything that could go wrong has gone wrong, but last year’s magic has still drawn fans in droves. The Nationals have averaged 33,439 fans at Nationals Park, more than 3,000 more per game than last year. Across Major League Baseball, only the Baltimore Orioles have seen a more dramatic increase in attendance.
While attendance is up, the team’s poor play seems to be generating more apathy than outrage. Danny Rouhier, who co-hosts a morning sports talk show on 106.7 The Fan, the team’s official broadcast partner, said a year ago fans clogged phone lines to discuss Harper’s ascendance, Strasburg’s innings limit and the Nationals’ first playoff race. On opening day this year, the show had “locked and loaded [phone] lines.”
As the Nationals’ losses piled up, “we’ve just sort of had to push it to the back burner,” Rouhier said. Caller volume slows when the Nationals arise as a topic, he said, and ratings shrink.
“We’ve had to move away from the amount of Nats conversation we’d like to have,” Rouhier said. “One of my missions is to make D.C. baseball popular. Without the team living up to their end of the bargain, it’s tougher and tougher to do that.”
Rouhier said the team’s most loyal fans remain just as fervent. At many games this season, though, the team’s supporters have fled Nationals Park before the last out. The dreary conditions of the past two days offered a brief reprieve, but the rain could not wash the reality of a once-promising season nearing the brink.