For the Washington Nationals, simple plays could be fundamental to success in 2014

Thomas Boswell
Columnist February 16

Baseball is roughly equal parts talent and execution. You hear that bromide every spring as teams work on drills and techniques. But in the case of the Washington Nationals, this half-and-half rule is almost exactly true. And it reveals what is most exciting — and most flawed — about them.

“We have a lot of very talented players,” Silver Slugger shortstop and team leader Ian Desmond said Sunday. “We’ve got all the tools, but all those tools aren’t sharp yet. If a knife isn’t sharp, it won’t cut.”

Tom Boswell is a Washington Post sports columnist. View Archive

Last season in close games, those decided by one or two runs, the Nats couldn’t cut it: 36-44, the mark of a near-90-loss team. In games decided by more than two runs, reflecting talent, they were 50-32, exactly the sort of World Series contender pace they were expected to produce.

“I used to hate it when people said we had a young team. No knock on [Bryce] Harper and [Stephen] Strasburg, but they barely spent any time in the minors at all. We weren’t just a young team; we were inexperienced. It takes years to learn the details of the pro game,” said Desmond, who was still raw in 2010 as a 24-year-old regular despite having played 638 games in the minors.

The Nats picked a tough year in which to squander bases and outs, the currency that accumulates into runs. As part of a seven-season trend, baseball had its lowest-scoring season (4.17 runs per team) since 1992 and its lowest batting average (.253) since ’72. So the value of each run was magnified. The old big-inning game, built on a walk, a bloop and a blast, succeeded less often; speed, defense, holding runners, framing pitches to steal strikes — the slightest edge — mattered more.

“When I was just starting in the minors, I thought, ‘This game is going to go back to more like it used to be.’ Less scoring, more defense and pitching, more emphasis on the little things that can lead to one run that wins a game,” said Desmond, aware he was drafted in the first generation after the game cracked down on performance-enhancing drug use. “Now it’s come to fruition.”

Every element of the Nats’ offseason preparation was designed to ensure the team was more aligned with such trends. Doug Fister fields and holds runners well despite being 6 feet 8 and seldom walks anyone. Outfielder Nate McLouth brings steals and outfield range. Even backup catcher Jose Lobaton was targeted in a trade because he frames (steals) pitches well — an area that pitch-track technology allows geeks to measure precisely and at which Kurt Suzuki ranked badly.

Don’t ask General Manager Mike Rizzo what he thinks of his team’s execution. He might drag up the old line: “I’m in favor of it.” The message has been sent with Manager Matt Williams as chief tool sharpener.

This spring training will be devoted to “commitment level, enthusiasm and attention to detail,” the rookie manager said Sunday. Give an example?

Stephen Strasburg was working on his slide step and his moves to first base in his first bullpen session today,” Williams said.

Last season, in one symbol of a year in which many Nats were exposed as unripe fruit, some runners stole second base while Strasburg never moved. Turns out he had never been taught to hold runners properly and could not see thieves once they got a full lead. Through high school and college, he had been signaled when to throw to first base.

“I didn’t have much time in the minors to work on the little nuances of pitching. I compensated by just being really quick to home plate,” Strasburg said. “Big league coaches, base runners, they’re going to pick up on that, and they’re just going to cheat and sell out. If I can’t see where they’re at and I know I’m going to home plate, they’re gone.”

“It was pretty apparent. It wasn’t something I was blindsided by,” added Strasburg, who actually was blindsided. “I knew it was something I needed to work on.”

Like Bryce Harper running full-speed and face-first into a wall he never saw or rookie Anthony Rendon playing second base with zero experience at the position since Little League, the Nats were constantly trying to out-tool a tricky game while playing under a nationwide microscope of expectations.

“Last season with all the people talking about us, everybody expected us to make that jump to go to the World Series,” Strasburg said. “It was humbling because it’s not that easy. . . . A lot of good teams never make it. We have just got to keep our heads down a little bit more this year and just focus on getting better, playing the game the right way. Be sound fundamentally. Once you’re sound fundamentally being such a talented team, I think we can beat a lot of teams.”

The Nats know their problem. Soon we’ll find out whether they can only talk about it or can also fix it. Three hours after practice ended Sunday, Williams and coach Bobby Henley were alone on the Space Coast Stadium field practicing flashing signals from the dugout to third base. Eyewash? Or a sign that disguising your intent to steal or try a hit-and-run or suicide bunt is again central?

Blithe spirit Gio Gonzalez, a pitcher you would never want to change too much for fear of losing his carefree bravado, must have forgotten to cover first base a dozen times last year on grounders to the right side. Coaches became apoplectic, and Jayson Werth once got in his face in the dugout. On Sunday, Gonzalez, unprompted, began talking about how he wanted to “work a lot” on covering first base this spring. “I have to embed it in my mind, ‘Get over, get over’ every time, even a grounder to second base.”

All the noble, new-season resolutions of February are hard to keep. Gio tries to look serious as he makes his cover-first-base vow. But he still has a grin on his face as he says it.

At least as far back as Samuel Johnson in the 18th century, the wise have known that “the chains of habit are too light to be felt until they are too strong to be broken.” Can the Nationals break free?

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

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