Washington Nationals had a much-needed reality check that could help them in 2014

The Post Sports Live crew tries to pick a reason why the Nationals did not live up to the offseason expectations. (Post Sports Live/The Washington Post)
Thomas Boswell
Columnist September 25, 2013

With Davey Johnson departing, it’s time for the good ship Natitude to anticipate 2014 by lowering its Jolly Roger to half-staff.

Last season, the Nats learned the joys of being good. This year, they were taught the difficulty of greatness.

Tom Boswell is a Washington Post sports columnist. View Archive

Next season, in a league with fine young talent in St. Louis, Atlanta and Los Angeles and contenders in Cincinnati and Pittsburgh, the Nats will have to refocus on what should have been their goal this year: playing a game of infinite detail and infuriating difficulty just a little better all the time. The road to being a wonderful team usually takes years.

If two or three things had gone differently this season, the Nats might have made the wild card and thought they were perfectly on track. If Dan Haren had pitched as decently all year as he did after the all-star break, if Bryce Harper hadn’t run into the wall in Los Angeles, if Wilson Ramos hadn’t hurt his hamstring and missed two months, what might have been?

But here’s what would’ve been lost: a reality check many of us needed.

Patience has been called a pedestrian name for hope. But the very word patience implies a brake on excessive hope, the kind that leads to comments, meant to be harmless, that suddenly grow teeth with each defeat — like “World Series or bust,” a phrase that’s now a cautionary tale.

Unfortunately, Davey’s reality check is still lost in the mail. On Tuesday, he said the Nats would “probably” have beaten the Cardinals in the playoffs last year if they hadn’t needed to shut down Stephen Strasburg. He added that his Nats “manhandled” the eventual champ Giants in the regular season. Love the guy, but he makes you want to smack your forehead. Or his.

That’s losing talk: I’m not really my record. I would have won, but . . .

It’s akin to Davey’s recent jabs that the team Mike Rizzo gave him wasn’t quite what he wanted, though they built it together. “After 50 years [in the game], I guess he can throw me under the bus a little bit,” Rizzo said.

The Nats need a fresh start in ’14. Johnson arrived at a perfect time, when the team needed his self-confidence. He helped a city with an 80-year baseball inferiority complex get over a psychological hump it will never have to climb again. But he’s probably going at a good juncture, too.

We’ve heard the Redskins brag too much for 20 years. The Nats, who just got excited by the high altitude, have a chance to nip it after one season.

That transition in tone has probably already started. “I thought we were a 90-win team [in 2012], and I thought we were a 90-win team going into this year,” Rizzo says now. Hmmm. That wasn’t the meal on the March menu. But he means 90 wins give or take the baseball weather, fair winds or ill.

Ninety is a fine number, a sane number, a usually-makes-the-playoffs number. It mixes ambition, common sense and a thimble of modesty. If it becomes the annual Nat Number, one with wiggle room, that’s progress.

In a season involuntarily dedicated to such humility training, the Nats had the excellent misfortune to visit St. Louis this week. They were eliminated from the playoffs Monday, almost no-hit by a rookie Tuesday and swept Wednesday. The same Cardinals who beat them last October made sure the Nats, who had come to town on a 30-12 hot spell, couldn’t deceive themselves all winter that they were world-beaters who just got hot too late.

The Nats are a fine young team in a tough, exciting National League where nothing is going to be easy as far as the eye can see, which in baseball is about two or three years. Atlanta got a bit better. The rich Dodgers unsheathed Yasiel Puig. The Pirates became the Nats of ’13. Some teams have farm systems; the Cardinals have a gold mine. The Reds also finished ahead of the Nats.

So the Nats need to focus on one and only one reality this winter: They need to get better. Their starting pitching is three deep but not firmly established beyond that. Their lineup is one of the best when fully healthy but one of the worst when it’s not. That means more depth is needed. Unless Adam LaRoche has another comeback season in him, first base lacks punch. Anthony Rendon needs to progress toward being a .300 hitter, and Ramos needs to figure out how to stay healthy for 130 games and be a standout.

But the Nats’ improvement, their maturation, must start at the top of the talent ladder with Strasburg (7-9) and Harper (57 RBI). They have the tools to be exceptional but are currently just very good.

Strasburg has a few too many excuses, maladies and moods. Next year, he needs a new kind of innings “limit”: 210, minimum. He’ll be 26 next July. At that age, pitchers stop worrying about their arms and live out their fate. Be Justin Verlander or be Mark Prior but find out which it is. That’s what Strasburg wants. He says he’s ready to be a horse; give him his head.

Because he is so young, Harper deserves more slack. Per at-bat, he’s improved this year and with normal development is on track to be one of the top 10 to 20 hitters, though it may take a couple of years as it did Ken Griffey Jr. But since he adores attention, Harper won’t get that long leash.

“Is this who Harp’s going to be — .275 and 60 RBI?” one of his teammates said. “Nobody believes that. But he needs to become that middle-of-the-order producer that everybody’s always assumed he would be.”

The Nats’ next manager needs to take Davey’s bubble wrap off Nos. 34 and 37. Johnson gave them two full seasons of cover for their quirks and maturation. Good, thanks. But by Strasburg’s fourth full year and Harper’s third, they’re just pros now. They won’t mind. That’s who they want to be.

All our favorite holidays, birthdays and celebrations come once a year — cake and ice cream! We’re calibrated to that cycle of satisfaction. But trips to the World Series, on average, come only every 15 years and a title once per 30. That’s the game’s harsh baseline. This season, with the whole sport whispering “title” in the Nats’ ears and the Nats agreeing, everything got flipped. The Nats began April thinking immediately of dessert. So every error, blown save and loss led to more tension and joyless frustration.

That spoiled our appetite for what in most towns, and almost every D.C. club in 80 years, would be a season with a 19-win pitcher, five 20-homer hitters, good rookies and elimination forestalled until the last week.

Next year, let’s all start by eating our spinach. It’s expected to taste bitter. Maybe that’ll help the rest of the six-month meal taste sweeter.

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

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