Washington Nationals have plenty of blame to go around for lost season

The Post Sports Live crew debates whether Mike Rizzo deserved a promotion from Nationals general manager to president of baseball operations. (The Washington Post)
Mike Wise
Columnist August 8, 2013

The pulse has been checked routinely over the past month, but it’s no use. Every resuscitation attempt has failed. They’re gone. Listless at the plate, 151 / 2 games back of the Braves in the NL Eastand nine games back of the Reds in the wild-card “race,”it’s time to begin the autopsy phase of this downer of a Washington Nationals season.

Time of death: 9:27 p.m. Wednesday night, the moment streaking Atlanta completed a sweep of Washington and moved to 6-0 at Nationals Park this season.

Mike Wise is a sports columnist for The Washington Post. View Archive

Cause of death: Constriction of the trachea. The Nats were not able to swallow and digest great expectations, not able to play with the swagger their manager believed they had beyond just a 20-year-old, show-’em-up hellion whom everyone but his mother wants to plunk.

With 48 games left, now comes the most sobering question of all: Was this anemic-hitting eyesore the aberration, or was last year’s magic-carpet ride to the NL East title the aberration? Because if 2012 were the outlier, that’s a problem.

“This year” was the aberration, Adam LaRoche said flatly when asked in the clubhouse on Wednesday afternoon. “You bring the same crew back next year that we had this year, it’d be real hard for me to believe it would be the same story. It’s just one of those fluke things.”

The Nats have to believe a combination of bad bounces and circumstances relevant just to this season — not who they are as an organization — led them to win no more than five games in a row thus far, that 2013, not 2012, should be viewed as a disturbing anomaly.

A chunk of the disappointment is due to Manager Davey Johnson, who at this point needs a sabermetrician more than his gut. The beauty of being a wait-for-the-three-run-homer manager is when that mighty swing happens. The curse? The value of runners being moved across for a struggling offense is lost and, in turn, the only place runs are ever manufactured is in the imagination of fans.

Mike Rizzo needs to take his fair share. A year after he had the Midas personnel touch, Denard Span and Dan Haren haven’t added squat to a 98-win team a year ago. The newly named president of baseball operations is probably kicking himself more over the fact that all the Band-Aids in the world never healed the lack of quality left-handers out of the bullpen. Free agents are all dice rolls, to some extent, susceptible to bad years. Not addressing a clear need is harder to rationalize.

But most of the blame falls on the players who wilted instead of thrived when so many of the game’s smartest observers — including their own carnival-barking manager — declared them champion material.

Most disturbing about this club from the outside was a lack of mental toughness. They did not respond to adversity for any length of time — not between series, rough losses and even between at-bats.

They had no discipline at the plate when runs were scarce, a drought that’s lasted all season. It’s great that Bryce Harper is tied for the second-most walks on the team and often has such a discerning eye. But when a 20-year-old is smart enough to realize 2-0 is a hitter’s count and you don’t poke at a high-and-outside fastball for a meek popup, while so many of his older teammates do, that’s not a feather in Harper’s cap; that’s an indictment of the guys who hit in front of him and behind him, who should know better.

Blame fired hitting coach Rick Eckstein or Davey’s lack of situational hitting strategies all you want, but at some point Chad Tracy, Steve Lombardozzi, Tyler Moore and Roger Bernadina have to respond with a pinch-hit slap single to win a game. Outside of Tyler Clippard and maybe a couple others, the guys behind the starters did nothing to help.

In soliciting answers for the Nats’ demise on social media the other day, I got some great replies, from the obligatory “they wouldn’t be five games under .500 if Joe Girardi, Walt Weiss or Bo Porter were at the helm” to very well-found seamhead stats on Baseball-Reference.com that effectively showed how certain players had come back to normal statistical levels of their careers.

Other suggestions, such as a svelte Taft joining the Rushmores and the Curse of Teddy — inflicted on the team after he finally won the presidents’ race at the end of last season — made me chuckle. But most amusing was the oft-repeated “They Should Have Never Let Michael Morse Go” references.

Morse has become the reverse scapegoat, the thought being that if the popular clubhouse presence and big bat were around, Natstown would be dancing and singing hosanas in the aisles as “Take on Me” boomed through the stadium speakers.

No, it wouldn’t. Against the Cardinals in last season’s NL Division Series, when the season mattered most, Michael Morse couldn’t bust a grape in Middleburg. He struck neither fear in the pitchers he was facing nor confidence in his teammates or manager. Long-term, keeping a good guy with great regular season numbers did not make sense.

I’m not going to argue Drew Storen needs to be the closer again. Clubhouse chemistry in baseball is often overrated. You know what builds chemistry? Winning more than five games in a row all season, that’s what.

But Rafael Soriano entering the equation did bring a different dynamic. He’s a loner who’s on his own program, who briefly joins his teammates for warmup throws before the game but doesn’t join them to stretch or shag flies in batting practice.

Yes, that could come across as a double standard, seeing as how Stephen Strasburg is also in his own world and often has the extroverted qualities of Howard Hughes. Just saying: When the new guy in the clubhouse and one of the highest-paid relievers in baseball does his own thing, people notice.

“I don’t see any glaring mental part of this club that has changed or should have been stronger,” LaRoche said, disagreeing on this point. “This is about as close as a clubhouse you can have. We’ve got enough older guys that try to keep things positive and keep the confidence up. But naturally, when you’re winning, it’s a snowball effect.

“But if you continue to get beat down, and have a two-game spurt where you’re like, ‘Okay, here we go,’ and you continue to get beat down again, I don’t care how strong the character is. You’re not going to have the kind of confidence of a team that’s won 12 or 15 straight can have. That’s the nature of the beast.”

A team with this kind of talent and payroll can’t admit it, of course, but perhaps last year and this year were aberrations. In making an incredible 18-game jump in wins a season ago from 2011, camouflaged by 60 final games of lights-out hitting that is clearly not the norm, the Nationals might still merely be a good, young team on the precipice of being a playoff regular.

Oh, they’ve underachieved tremendously, but they shouldn’t have been expected to win 100 games this season based on one year of data. Somewhere between 98 and 80 – let’s say 90 wins — would have been more realistic and in line with who they really are at this stage in their development.

And if the Nationals are not at least that club next year, en route to playing in October, then there are real problems.

For more by Mike Wise, go to washingtonpost.com/wise.

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