Washington Nationals, with the playoffs in their sights, have a few storylines to watch


Steve Lombardozzi, right, is one of many Nationals bench players who have been spectacularly effective this season. (DARRYL WEBB/REUTERS)
August 11, 2012

Baseball etiquette and superstition dictates that teams involved in pennant races zip it about their postseason prospects.

“Don’t even try to go there with me,” Washington Nationals Manager Davey Johnson said recently while flashing an amused smile and scurrying out of his Nationals Park office to avoid discussing the subject.

“Just can’t do it. You know what I mean?”

Absolutely. With 49 games remaining, the thinking goes, it would be bad form for the club with Major League Baseball’s best record to suddenly become chatty about its obviously strong position. There’s no need to provide opponents with bulletin-board material or potentially anger the “baseball gods,” who could spring a long losing streak on the Nationals at the drop of a cap. The Nationals’ aversion to publicly commenting about the playoff chase is actually as much a part of the game as uniforms and chalk. But we’re not bound by such constraints.

The Nationals have shown no signs of slowing down. If anything, the winners of seven straight have floored the accelerator toward clinching the District’s first baseball postseason appearance since the long-departed Senators celebrated in 1933. We haven’t experienced the thrill of meaningful late-season games around these parts in generations, so it’s time for a primer on a few key story lines to watch as the Nationals make a final kick to the finish in their transformative season.

Despite everything the National League East leaders have done well, they still can’t shake those pesky Atlanta Braves. Beginning play on Saturday, the Nationals held only a 4½-game lead over the division’s second-place club. The Braves also have the best record among teams vying for the two NL wild-card spots.

I’m convinced that the Nationals are headed to the playoffs. Under this season’s expanded postseason format, they’re as much of a lock to get in as Roger Bernadina is to bail out closer Tyler Clippard with a season-defining catch.

But after being the division doormat for most of their existence, the Nationals want to win the NL East title. It’s an important destination for them to reach, some in the organization privately acknowledge, along their rocky road from disgraceful to dominant.

The Nationals are scoreboard watching. They’re keeping tabs on the Braves “because it’s only human nature to want to know what your competitors are doing,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said in a phone interview on Friday. “We know there are a lot of valleys and peaks still ahead. But when you’re in the hills, you want to look around and see what’s out there.”

Scoreboard monitoring, at this stage of the season, is also a necessity for true Nationals fans. It’s simultaneously one of the game’s greatest joys and horrors. Learning that your favorite team’s closest pursuer has lost a game — especially on the same day the “good guys” have won — provides a sense of comfort about the standings. Conversely, if the lead shrinks, concerned fans lament about wasted opportunities earlier in the season.

Laptop computers, tablets and smart phones enable Nationals fans to track the Braves by the second. Anyone who hasn’t started definitely should. Immediately.

Ideally, the Nationals would enjoy a relatively stress-free remaining regular season. After watching Clippard’s high-wire act lately, though, they should brace for more drama.

Clippard has had three straight shaky outings. He would have suffered consecutive blown saves if Bernadina had not swiftly covered a chunk of the outfield at Minute Maid Park and ended Tuesday’s 12-inning victory over the Houston Astros with a wall-colliding catch for the ages.

Throughout Johnson’s successful managerial career, he has been among the best in his business at assembling strong bullpens. He has a master’s eye for identifying and correcting issues before they become full-blown problems, and Johnson is not worried about Clippard (“I love the guy,” he says).

There have been few lights-out relievers in baseball history. For every Mariano Rivera and Dennis Eckersley, there are 10 hold-your-breath closers. Mitch Williams was aptly nicknamed “Wild Thing” (Williams walked 544 batters in only 691.1 innings). Still, Williams recorded 192 saves and was a an all-star during an 11-year career with six teams.

Clippard hasn’t been anywhere close to Williams wild. He has hit a rough patch with his command, which Johnson realizes. Johnson has the luxury of turning back to Drew Storen, who had 43 saves last season, if Clippard fails to rediscover his groove.

Johnson stuck with Henry Rodriguez longer than most Nationals fans would have preferred. That’s just Davey. He’s a players’ manager. He errs on hanging with them too long rather than not long enough.

That’s why I believe Clippard will keep the job unless, over a much larger sample size than three appearances, he proves he no longer deserves it because of ineffectiveness or injury. As often as the Nationals have been without some of their best players this season, Johnson has had many contingency plans in place.

When Bernadina hit the wall in Houston, I couldn’t help but wonder, “How long will he be out?” Bernadina was fine. But I had a natural reaction during a season in which the Nationals have thrived while somehow overcoming injuries to so many key players.

That’s where the bench comes in. The great thing for the Nationals is that their reserves have been spectacularly effective. Bernadina is having the best season of his life. He has finally made the most of an opportunity to play. Steve Lombardozzi has been a lineup sparkplug. Each time the Nationals have seemed to have a hole, multiple players filled it quickly.

That must continue. When the Nationals shut down staff ace Stephen Strasburg (it’s coming soon), John Lannan will rejoin the rotation on a full-time basis after spending most of the season with Class AAA Syracuse. He’s already 2-0 with a 3.46 earned-run average in solid spot-duty work.

Getting top-notch production from backups is “one of the things that has really brought the guys together,” Rizzo said. “Right now, there’s such real meaning in every game that you play, and everyone in our clubhouse knows they can count on each other because we keep going out and proving it.

“We know we have a lot of time left. Everyone understands we have to keep working. But one of the good things about baseball is that, over 162 games, the best teams are usually left at the end. That’s all I say.”

For Nationals, the closing stretch of the season is shaping up to be a glorious time for them. Even if they don’t want to talk about it.

For Jason Reid’s previous columns go to washingtonpost.com/reid.

Jason Reid is a sports columnist with the Washington Post. He joined the Post’s Redskins team in 2007 after 15 years covering many beats at the Los Angeles Times.
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