Washington Nationals reach all-star break not far from contending but some distance from stability

Thomas Boswell
Columnist July 14, 2013

In the last two days, the Nationals got first-rate starts from Dan Haren and rookie Taylor Jordan, giving hope that the back end of their rotation may not continue to be a disaster. Also, on Sunday, Davey Johnson cooked up a new lineup with Bryce Harper and Anthony Rendon at the top, providing energy and on-base percentage, followed by four decent, veteran RBI men. That alignment drops Denard Span to the seventh spot and returns the Nats to some semblance of their power-at-the-top batting attack of last year.

Normally, for a 48-47 team that is lucky to be only six games out of first place at the all-star break, such a promising state of affairs, plus an extra-inning win on Sunday to avoid a sweep by the miserable Marlins, might be enough to give grounds for mild enthusiasm during the next four days off.

Tom Boswell is a Washington Post sports columnist. View Archive

After all, why be miserable with 67 games left? For two weeks, the Nats have been as close to full health as any club is in July and, at times, their hitters have shown the first signs all year of rousing themselves. The Braves have been so dreary (42-40) for three months that any good team should think it has a chance to catch them, especially since their whole outfield is now hurt.

But the Nats are different. Nothing “normal” has applied to them this season. They are a sports psychiatrist’s dream. Unless you know what’s going on in their zany brains, how can you guess what they’ll do next? Do they even have a clue themselves?

Bad baseball has its own deranged fascination. The Nats, even in their win on Sunday, often seem caught in its grip. If you love scary movies, watch the Nationals; they constantly seem to be one panic attack or brain freeze from their next disaster. If such a constant state of stress is not for you, then welcome the all-star hiatus as a respite from watching the public torments of an earnest, overconfident, prematurely entitled and disoriented team.

Being swept by the Fish is like being pistol-whipped by a flounder. Yet the Nats almost met that fate after Stephen Strasburg was knocked out in two innings and lost to Nathan Eovaldi on Friday; then Harper got a selfish ejection for arguing called strikes on Saturday, contributing to a loss.

The Nats trotted off happily after a 10th-inning win Sunday with Span, in his new slot, contributing three hits. But, if they are honest, they’ll look at this 2-5 road trip, and their last mundane six weeks (20-18 against some of MLB’s worst teams), and ask themselves again: What is wrong with us?

The midseason picture of the Nats is homely. They haven’t hit (next to last in MLB in runs per game) and they haven’t fielded (third from last). Their infielders and catchers have combined for a horrid 55 errors to only 25 for the crisp-fielding Orioles. That speaks directly to state of mind and focus. The Nats haven’t kept their heads in the game enough to execute fundamentals. If you gave them a sabbatical and a genius grant they couldn’t figure out how to get down a sacrifice bunt.

The same style that, deservedly, made Johnson the manager of the year in 2012 may be fizzling this year. His spring-training methods — short workouts and early tee times — look smart after a 14-4 start like last year’s. They look lax when your team bungles about three simple plays per game, month after month.

Mike Rizzo, last season’s executive of the year, has had his offseason moves backfire, too. Haren, whose command finally looked sharp in his last two starts after coming off the disabled list, is nonetheless still an awful 4-10. Is this dramatic improvement just a fake-out that will paralyze the Nats’ decision-making on trading for a fifth starter? Rizzo’s $24-million closer Rafael Soriano has been adequate, but he blew his fourth save on Saturday to go with two losses in tie games. And Span’s demotion in the order may send a message that, unless he improves, his next stop could be the bench against left-handers.

The Nats have conceded that they haven’t yet found a team identity, a coherent style of play this year. But, just as worrisome, they don’t even have a stable team mood, either.

Both Johnson and team leader Ian Desmond criticized Harper for getting ejected in the eighth inning with a 1-0 lead on Saturday. “No way. No way. That’s terrible. That’s terrible. That’s twice. That’s twice,” screamed Harper, repeating himself at umpire Hunter Wendlestedt, who, according to pitch-track replays was correct on all three close calls that Harper hated.

After the Orioles’ Manny Machado, 21, was ejected this season for arguing, he apologized to teammates, fans, media and the umpires, then said, “It will never happen again.” In complete contrast, Harper said: “I wasn’t going to take it. . . . I gave him a piece of my mind and got out what I wanted to get out.” As parents know, “I got out what I wanted to get out” is the worldview of the child.

Machado has been “tested” by umpires all season. He’s coping and learning. Harper is still bridling. The Nats’ all-star left fielder compares his stats to others in his brilliant generation, like Mike Trout. But he needs to compare his maturity, too.

“That’s the game you have to stay in no matter what,” Desmond said. “Sometimes you’ve got to bite your tongue — for your team.”

The Nats’ worst failing has been their frazzled nerves. They think they are an extremely good club that is always one day away from a hot streak that will ignite their season. But they seldom play with the poise of top teams. A frustrated ballclub is a misery to itself. Every sign of improvement just sets up the next annoyance. Every mistake seems to breed another.

Baseball is roughly equal parts talent and craft. And the craft is always tied to detail. Even a routine lead off first base, as simple as the game gets, can end in a pickoff if you take your steps off the bag in the wrong sequence or lose your balance at the wrong instant. On Sunday, Desmond almost got nailed twice, once when he had only a six-foot lead, once because he got flummoxed and almost toppled off the bag. No act of the game is too small or so easy that it can’t be screwed up.

So, when the game really turns against you, when it plays with your mind constantly, the number of possible mistakes, delicate misjudgments, millisecond decisions that can go wrong become almost infinite. Your failures soon exceed your ability to imagine what you’ll mess up next.

That self-inflicted state — the prolonged team slump, the sustained underperformance — often lasts for days or weeks. In some cases, like these neuron-knotted Nats, it endures for months on end. It can, and in their case may even last a whole season.

Somewhere between self-doubt and anger, between frustration and choking, between blowing your stack and feeling despondent, the Nats have reached the all-star break with the blessing of near-perfect physical health. Yet they’re a mental mess.

Most likely, Haren, Jordan and injured Ross Detwiler, in some combination, can provide an adequate back of the rotation. And Johnson’s latest lineup has an energetic, imaginative feel to it, especially the Harper-Rendon start.

But none of that will matter if the Nats can’t get their nerves, their disposition, their true confidence, rather then feigned bravado, under control for the second half. Starting Friday, the tough Dodgers and Pirates come to town. The staggering Nats have four days to find their bearings.

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

Comments
Show Comments
Most Read Sports
Stats, scores and schedules

Every story. Every feature. Every insight.

Yours for as low as JUST 99¢!

Not Now