Who are the Washington Nationals? Over past 200 games, the answer is elusive

It’s still early, but the Nationals have committed the third-most errors in baseball. The Post Sports Live crew looks at whether a team with poor fielding can still realistically win the division. (Post Sports Live/The Washington Post)
Columnist May 29, 2014

Now is a good time to place your bets while the issue is still totally in doubt.

Are the Washington Nationals of 2014 the same fundamentally unsound, error-prone, jittery-in-the-clutch bunch as the Nats of 2013, who found themselves 151 / 2 games behind Atlanta after 114 games? The Nats claim that’s when they screamed at themselves to wake up and finished the season strongly.

Tom Boswell is a Washington Post sports columnist. View Archive

Or have the Nats learned most of their lessons about coping with expectations and avoiding complacency, but we just haven’t realized it yet because they’ve had the most injuries to their starting lineup of any contender in MLB, plus two disabled list visits by starting pitchers?

Do the Nats have “another gear” and can they “kick it in,” as team leaders Jayson Werth and Ryan Zimmerman say their club can?

Or are the Nats simply another delusional team that refuses to believe they are their record? Since mid-September of 2012, that record is 120-113. That’s picking the date that makes them look worst. Their past 100 games are a 92-win pace. But 233 games is a whole lot of “blah.”

Ross Detwiler has struggled in the bullpen this season after losing his spot in the Nationals’ starting rotation. The Post Sports Live crew offers advice on what to do with the hard-throwing left-hander. (Post Sports Live/The Washington Post)

Do the Nats even remember who they were in 2012? The core of the team is the same. How did additional experience for young players, plus the addition of key bench and bullpen pieces, end up turning .600 into .500?

You want echoes? Last year, Davey Johnson said, “I’m out of answers.” This week, new Manager Matt Williams, brought in to stress defense because “you can bring your glove every day,” was asked how his team, which takes extra fielding practice constantly, could be next-to-last in baseball in errors. Explanations, please? “None. No ideas,” Williams said.

Then Williams repeated what he has said the past six weeks: We’ll keep grinding, work hard, things will get better, ’cause we’ve got a good bunch of guys. Matt, that’s Davey’s old material.

There are possibilities other than “Mystery Team” and “About to Get Hot.” But this season resembles last season so dramatically, both in record and in disturbing tendencies, that the Nats themselves need to ask right now, “Are we really a good team, or do we just talk a good game?”

No Nat is more in tune with the clubhouse mood than Werth.

“We’re banged-up. It’s a different situation [than last season]. We’re all aware of what happened last year, especially if we turned it on a week or 10 days sooner — let alone right now,” Werth said, aware the Nats were still alive for a wild card into the last week of the season.

“We don’t want to put ourselves in that situation again. Right now we’re keeping our heads above water.”

But barely. On Wednesday, after those comments, Werth made a throwing error that allowed an unearned run to score. How important was it? In theory, it cost the Nats the game because they lost in extra innings. The Nats are 6-11 in one-run games and 1-5 in extra innings. The Braves are 12-7 in one-run games. Do those stats expose the gap in fundamentals between the two organizations? Or are those the games when the Nats most feel the lack of one or two more bats? Their opening day starting lineup has been together for seven innings all season; those regulars have missed 32 percent of games, about three times the norm for winning teams this season.

Also on Wednesday night, Anthony Rendon, Werth and Adam LaRoche came up in a 4-4 game with the bases loaded and none out. Rendon battled through 10 pitches but fanned. Decent at-bat. Werth swung at a 1-0 fastball up-and-in — a pitcher’s pitch — and popped up. Poor at-bat. All were stranded. If one had scored, the discussion now might be about one of those potential “turnaround” games. But none did. And that “almost” quality still hangs around the Nats.

“We definitely have shot ourselves in the foot several times — in five games for sure,” Werth said of the Nats’ errors. Actually, the Nats have been lucky there. If only earned runs appeared on the scoreboard, the Nats’ record would be 25-24-3. So their 30 unearned runs worth of blundering has cost them only about 11 / 2 games outright, though it has contaminated other games.

Balanced against their injury jinx, they’ve been fortunate the atrocious Braves hitting has held them to a 28-25 record and the second-worst run total in MLB. Atlanta has eight whiffing hitters with sub-.700 on-base-plus-slugging percentages — yes, eight Danny Espinosas.

“We have the whole season in front of us. It’s right there,” Werth said, stretching out his arms. “But we have to kick it in gear here. You can get lost talking about what has happened instead of seizing the moment. What is it? Carpe diem?

“I love being that horse that comes around the outside to win and takes momentum into the postseason. I’ve been on that team” with the Phillies, Werth said. “But you have to give yourself a chance going into the second half. Right now, we are all right. We have the team to do it. It’s not for lack of chemistry. This is a good group. Actually, it’s a great group.”

Davey said that, too: a lot of men he would like a daughter to bring home. Are they too nice or too much cut from the same cloth or too comfortable together, a family that doesn’t want to brawl? Are enough in-your-face demands made on each other?

“We’ve had our moments [of public yelling]: [Werth] and Gio [Gonzalez] last year and in Oakland this year,” said Zimmerman, referring to another yelling-and-restraining outburst involving Gonzalez. “We’re all competitors. Doesn’t mean we fist-fight. If we win the division, we can laugh about it later.”

Even the Nats wonder at times whether they are missing something. Or is it already there, among them, and they simply are waiting for that quality to arrive, part of a baseball process that keeps its own schedule but culminates in maturity, poise and grit in deeds, not words.

The talk turns to teams that eventually — or never — clicked.

“Identity is the tough one,” Werth said. Sounds like the next T-shirt. He’s quiet. Then, not defiant or boastful but like a card player deciding I’ll-play-these, he says, “I like us.”

Some do, some don’t. And in the next few months, many will make up their minds.

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

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