This unexpected but excellent agony called the Nationals is going to be with us all summer. Get used to it.
Our daily diet of one-run dramas, like yesterday's 11-inning, 3-2 loss to the Mets before 44,492 at RFK Stadium, will likely be the norm for the rest of steamy July and sweltering August. So, stop chewing your fingernails, pulling your hair and holding your breath every time the bases are loaded. If you believe your lucky incantations win one-run games for the Nationals or find yourself adopting superstitions every time Chad Cordero comes out of the bullpen, then cut it out. That way madness lies.
How many nail-biters can one town stand? We're about to find out.
"Buy a lot of fake fingernails," advised Manager Frank Robinson.
Washington never expected a pennant race this year, not in its first season back in baseball since 1971. The city just wanted to watch some baseball games again. After all, the town's last encounter with real pennant possibilities was in 1933. For all but the oldest in this area, this sudden experience of first place past the season's midpoint is new and almost unimaginable stuff.
Yet the game's hottest and most addictive fever has arrived in town several years ahead of the most optimistic schedule. It's fallen from the sky before the new Nationals even have an owner or massed a core of famous stars, before the team payroll hit $50 million, much less $100 million. It just happened, by serendipity and splendid surprise. But it's here and not going away.
How do we know? Because the hallmark of pennant races is that, for every team in the fight, the biggest crisis in the history of the sport seems to arrive about once a week. Each successive series seems fraught with potential disaster or opportunity.
For example, this weekend in Philadelphia, the Nats face a crisis. Everybody says so. Why? Because they just lost three games out of four to the Mets. In recent days, Cordero's streak of 26 straight saves has been broken. So has Livan Hernandez's skein of 11 straight wins. A streak of a dozen consecutive one-run wins by Washington is now history. And at 30-13, the Nats' home record is no longer the best in baseball. In less than a week, some of the statistical mystique has been rubbed off the Nats.
"This, absolutely, is probably as big a four games as we've played all year long," said Robinson, referring to the final games before the all-star break. Then, his team went out and lost. Afterward, elaborating more than revising, he said, "You can lose three out of four, you know. But then, what happens after that?" Ahhh, that's what matters, indeed.
In a pennant race, your reward for surviving a crisis -- or simply rewriting history and claiming retroactively that it wasn't such a big crisis after all -- is that you get to face another challenge just as tough, usually within a week.
So, afternoons of frustration like yesterday's are the game's normal form of examination, not some special torture. No pity attends a team that's forced to use rookie Matt Cepicky in the outfield and ancient Carlos Baerga at cleanup. Everybody suffers. The decimated Dodgers, who thought they'd be contenders this year, fielded this lineup of unknowns yesterday: Oscar Robles, Jason Repko, Jayson Werth, Olmedo Saenz, Antonio Perez, Mike Edwards, Cody Ross and Mike Rose.
The Nationals, who expect to have their best everyday lineup intact for the first time in two months by the first game after the all-star break, realize how lucky they are compared to most clubs. Many Washington fans probably have no clear sense of how much good work the Nationals have already done. At 51-34, Washington needs to go 39-38 to finish with 90 wins.
And how good is 90 wins? Since the wild card was introduced in 1995, 73 teams have won 90 games. Only eight missed the playoffs. The Nationals know how strong their postseason position already is, especially if you take a wild-card perspective where they have a six-game lead over the Florida Marlins.
"Did you see the standings this morning?" Brian Schneider asked Gary Bennett. "All five teams in the National League East are over .500. Everybody else in the league is under .500 except the other division leaders [in the Central and West]."
What this means to big leaguers is that almost all the potential wild-card contenders in the Central and West are already in deep trouble. The best record in the bunch belongs to the Astros, who trail the Nats by 91/2 games.
"I didn't think that the wild card would come out of the NL East this year because every team is so strong," said Schneider. But now the situation seems entirely reversed. Out of the Nationals, Braves and Marlins, it's likely that two will make the playoffs. Most in baseball still assume the Nationals are running on adrenaline and luck. They may be right. But, even in a poor-case scenario, it's likely that it will take most of July and August to prove the Nats don't belong. And what if they do?
"We know we are in the driver's seat right now," Robinson said of the team's division lead and even more healthy wild-card standing. "If we continue to win our ballgames, we can't be caught."
The excitement of the last three months, as the Nats -- ready or not -- became contenders is about to be raised to a higher power. April and May are gentle months. June and July bring the season to a sizzle. By August, unless the Nationals completely fall apart -- which is conceivable given their pedigree but unlikely if you actually watch them play -- Washington baseball fans will be in the grip of something for which they have not even begun to prepare themselves.
One crisis will follow another as the night the day. The latest for the Nationals is a flap surrounding slugger Jose Guillen, who is either The Bomb or just a bomb. The combustible right fielder was peeved on Tuesday that, after being hit by a pitch for the 10th time this season and the fourth time by the Mets' Pedro Martinez, Washington starter Esteban Loaiza did not retaliate on his behalf. A two-day chill between Guillen and some of his teammates seems to have calmed down.
Guillen apparently does not know one of the game's old codes. Sluggers who crowd the plate or dive toward the plate as Guillen does, taking away the outside corner from the pitcher, are fair game for inside fastballs, as long as they arrive below the shoulders. Stars like Robinson and Don Baylor were routinely hit a dozen or more time a year and didn't expect their teammates to stage a half-dozen brawls a year just to defend them because they had chosen to adopt an aggressive batting style. If rivals headhunt against Guillen, the Nationals need to find a balance-of-terror response for such bean balls. But getting plunked in the ribs, if you're Guillen, Derek Jeter or Jeff Bagwell, is just a fact of life that goes along with being a hitter who "charges the plate."
Even when Guillen recovers from a bout with bronchitis and, by next week, Nick Johnson and Ryan Church join him in a lineup that will also include Jose Vidro, Brad Wilkerson and Vinny Castilla, the Nationals will still play one tense close ballgame after another. And the tiniest plays will often matter most. In the fifth inning against the Mets, starter Tony Armas Jr. struck out on three fouled sacrifice bunt attempts -- a sin for a pitcher. Cepicky, who had doubled, was not moved to third. So, he could not score on Wilkerson's subsequent fly ball. One mistake, one lost run and, many innings later, one narrow extra-inning defeat.
"All these one-run games take a toll. After the break, we need some easy wins somewhere along the way so we can rest our minds and our bullpen," said Wilkerson. "But we know these close games are going to be our style all year.
"And it's going to be a fight right to the end."
Looks like a bull market for fake fingernails.