Washington’s baseball club in desperate need of a Natitude adjustment

The Post Sports Live crew debates whether the Nationals defensive struggles or the team’s bullpen are of bigger concern.
Thomas Boswell
Columnist May 21, 2013

What we have here is too much Natitude and not enough latitude.

The Washington Nationals have pushed their chosen team identity of swagger, vast expectations, physical toughness and intensity bordering on mania to the danger point. What was beneficial last season is not always benign. They need to back off, before a season gets too damaged or somebody really gets hurt.

Tom Boswell is a Washington Post sports columnist. View Archive

On Sunday night, Ryan Mattheus broke his pitching hand in anger hitting his locker, the only thing in Petco Park that hadn’t hit him already.

Mattheus — who forgot Crash Davis’s advice to rubes (“when you get in a fight with a drunk, you don’t hit him with your pitching hand.”) — said he had been stupid, let his team down and wondered if, when he gets back, he could be given a sack-cloth uniform.

What matters most is not that Mattheus acted like an idiot but that he’s typical of the Nats right now, a tip-off to their state of mind, a canary in the clubhouse. He embodies his whole frustrated furious malfunctioning team.

The Post Sports Live crew talks about Bryce Harper’s head-on collision with the outfield wall in Dodgers stadium during Monday night’s game. (Post Sports Live)

Last week, Bryce Harper ran face-first full-speed into the Dodgers’ scoreboard with a 6-0 lead. Then he compounded his recklessness by coming back too soon, aggravated his swollen knee (a parting gift from the fence) and missed more time. Manager Davey Johnson, Harper’s 70-year-old accomplice in impatience, didn’t hold him back. Mr. Wall has not yet missed a Dodger game.

This month, Stephen Strasburg melted down in a scoreless game in which he had filthy stuff, losing his poise after Ryan Zimmerman made another error. With two out and only one on, he should have just attacked the No. 8 hitter. Instead, addled by his own perfectionism, he allowed four runs in a loss.

This pattern has gone on all season. Whatever bad happens to them, they make it worse, usually for no reason and in a manner that suggests they have mashed potatoes for brains.

Wilson Ramos, the slowest Nat, went on the disabled list with a strained hamstring, came back, then tried to stretch out a double, which wasn’t much needed, and ended up back on the DL. As he left the game, he slammed down his helmet with his hand still in it. Nothing broke. Amazing.

Somewhere, the splintered bat that just missed Harper’s eye on a ricochet last year is laughing. Against the Nats, take the Inanimate Objects and give the points.

This month, Jayson Werth had a tight hamstring and tried to come back too fast, “testing” the muscle every day in hopes he could play. He ignored that he was also sick with a stomach virus and dehydrated, which aggravates pulled muscles. By the time he listened to his body, it said, “Quit picking on me, you big ape. Now you’ll be out a month.”

Every time Zimmerman lobs an easy throw that’s 10 feet wide and almost gets his first baseman killed, he looks like he wants to bite third base.

The Post Sports Live crew debates whether Stephen Strasburg’s recent pitching struggles are all in his head. (Post Sports Live)

Any Danny Espinosa at-bat illustrates the syndrome. With hindsight, he should have had shoulder surgery last winter. He didn’t. He’s lifted extra weights to compensate and would explode if he swung any harder. He’s such a mess he couldn’t get a hit in T-ball if all the munchkin fielders took a nap.

The more the Nats try to live up to “World Series or Bust,” the more they try to show how much they care about their play and their team, the more they prove that frustration and anger compound every problem.

Every good big league team has a sense of itself, of how it plays on the field, how it functions internally and what collective personality it projects to foes and fans. There is no perfect posture toward the game, no stance that allows you to hit whatever the sport throws at you. Every team has holes.

The Nationals adopted a marketing phrase last season that actually captured much of how General Manager Mike Rizzo, Johnson, clubhouse leader Werth and young stars Harper and Strasburg actually saw their team: Natitude.

The term sounds silly, but it means attitude, swagger, pride in following your own ideas and an inclination to firmly ignore the views of those who differ with your approach. The Nats won 98 games that way last season. It wasn’t an illusion. But like all team personas, this one has flaws and limits, too.

The problem with this public personality is that you set up yourself as a target. When things go badly, your enemies enjoy it. Having set your aim so high, you can feel pressure even more.

Long before they had accomplished much, the two most famous Nats, Harper and Strasburg, made it clear that they dreamed of and fully intended to achieve greatness. Strasburg was ice, Harper fire, but they had the same imperious presence, the chiseled-from-willpower 230-pound physiques.

The entire Nats organization has defined itself in terms of their promise. There was probably no other choice, especially because Rizzo, Johnson and Werth were already in place, all of them prickly attitude guys. Last year, we saw many benefits of Natitude, especially for a town that hadn’t had a postseason team in 79 years and a Montreal-born franchise with nary a title.

Now, we may be learning the flip side of wanting to be great yesterday, or fighting against the infuriating humbling character of the game itself.

The Nats aren’t doing anything wrong in shaping themselves to the character of their dominant personalities. It’s always that way. But it also means you must play out the history of that kind of team. You don’t know what that fate will be, or on what timetable, at the start of the journey.

There is no perfect organizational stance toward the game. The Braves are efficient, understated, no drama and professional. It was, and still is, a fabulous approach. But did they lack the charisma for October? There has been only one world title in Atlanta since the Braves arrived in 1966.

The Yankees cultivate a superiority complex. When they are great, it intimidates foes, as it did from 1996 to 2000. When they aren’t quite great, it absolutely inspires foes to beat them in October. They have spent $2 billion in the past 12 years for only one world championship. Add your own examples.

This may be the season when the Nats start seeing everything that’s flawed in them, everything they still need to learn. That leads to maturity. Champions are adult. But who enjoys the actual process of growing up?

The Nats are not just 45 games into this season. It would be more accurate to say they are about 200 games, including last season and its playoffs, into a 1,000-game test of their athletic gifts and their mental ability to learn from everything that buffets and batters them along the way.

The seas are getting choppy out West this week. This “World Series or Bust” stuff is never about smooth sailing, but actually, just the opposite. To the Nats, these bouts of heavy weather, whether last October or now, are part of the seasoning process of becoming an old salt. That bitter taste isn’t gall, just necessary brine.

For Thomas Boswell’s previous columns go to washingtonpost.com/boswell.

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