This week, in a year that could put anybody on earth down in the dumps, I got the baseball wake-up call again — provided as usual on MLB’s understated, intimate level.
“Get back in balance,” the game advises. “Take a longer, more patient and less distressed view.”
This past Friday, the world champion Washington Nationals lost, 11-0, to the 108-loss Baltimore Orioles and lefty Tommy Milone, who had won only nine games in four years.
On Saturday, Sean Doolittle and Daniel Hudson, both bullpen heroes in the World Series, blew a three-run lead, giving up five runs on three Orioles homers.
On Sunday (baseball still resides in the gruesome details), World Series MVP Stephen Strasburg, in his season debut, gave up five runs in the fifth inning and said the nerve problem in his hand, which had kept him out of action, had returned.
Then it rained. The grounds crew turned the tarp into a dog’s blanket. Were there survivors? Is it untangled yet?
Suddenly, Washington really did have a Swamp, but it was the Nationals Park infield. The game was suspended with Washington down, 5-2, to be resumed Friday, provided the Nats did not disband the franchise by then out of shame.
Then the Nationals took a train to New York.
And beat the Mets, 16-4.
I am delighted to report: This is baseball.
Late in that dance party, Asdrúbal Cabrera (two homers, two doubles) got a piggyback ride down the dugout from Manager Dave Martinez as all cheered. Social distancing was briefly but conspicuously ignored. Davey should promise to do this every time Cabrera has four extra-base hits in a game, because it was a first.
Juan Soto, who missed the Nats’ first eight games with what may have been a false positive coronavirus test, hit a 463-foot homer, his longest ever until he hit one even farther Wednesday. Yes, Childish Bambino is still filling out — and was slugging .944 after his first four games back.
Lefty Patrick Corbin was sharp — again. The next night, ace Max Scherzer came back after exiting his previous appearance with a hamstring injury. The result: one run in six innings and a 2-1 escape.
By Wednesday, in an 11-6 loss to the Mets, two more Soto home runs (one of them measuring 466 feet) just felt like more evidence that the Nats’ season was back in order. Strasburg, meanwhile, expects to pitch through his hand problem and return to form. We’ll see.
Post-title malaise is real in sports. The Nats got a quadruple whammy. At times, they have had the typical title-repeat blahs. What, Mount Everest — again? Doolittle’s diminished fastball and free agent reliever Will Harris’s injuries have left vulnerable what seemed a strong bullpen on paper.
At others times, the Nats have been dismayed by the unique circumstances of this summer. Everything from the Houston Astros’ cheating scandal to the pandemic mini-season to empty ballparks has squashed all the 2020 celebrations that were planned for their 2019 triumph. Major bummer.
Even social-distancing rules in dugouts — so necessary — work a hardship on one of the all-time high-spirited, tightly bonded clubs in any sport. A team that symbolized joy by having fun has almost been forbidden to act happy. Or at least the Nats haven’t figured out yet how to stage an MLB Mardi Gras without physical contact.
Finally, the early-season nicks to Soto, Strasburg and Scherzer — the team’s three dominant performers — were sure to leave a mark, even if temporary.
In this context, plus the major Orioles stinker, it’s easy to miss Starlin Castro’s .288 average and his range and arm at second base. Early errors seem behind him.
Also, General Manager Mike Rizzo’s latest midseason grand theft, in the Howie Kendrick tradition, is Cabrera, who has 51 RBI in 170 Nats at-bats since arriving a year ago this week. That ties him with Bryce Harper for the NL lead in RBI in that period. Kendrick merely leads MLB in batting average for the past two seasons combined (.342). Tanner Rainey looks like a quality relief arm, while Austin Voth has solid back-end starter stuff and poise. That’s a decent number of pluses hidden in a homely start.
Nevertheless, the current Nats may be the simplest team of this era to analyze: They have $595 million invested in three pitchers. If that trio gets healthy and rolling, even in September, it’s accidentally a perfect fit for MLB’s gimmick 16-team playoff format with a three-game opening series. Everybody knows “nobody repeats,” but Vegas now disrespects the Nats at 22-to-1.
If the Big Three doesn’t dominate, then the Nats won’t win squat. But at least their year is making sense again — getting off the crazy train and back into balance.
Maybe that is what baseball does best: use a 16-run outburst and a managerial piggyback ride to help us restore our sense of balance. We use a small thing — a game — to remind us not to let big things — the whole world in 2020 — destroy our core resiliency.
Just hop on the train, get off at Citi Field, forget the past, keep life in manageable one-day compartments and lay two touchdowns on the Mets.
In one day, a team can go from a streak of play that seems cataclysmically inept to a giddy laugher that reminds us that one of our jobs is to find things to enjoy.
We all have our own tools to keep us in balance — like a carpenter’s bubble level. They take countless forms, from hobbies to good works, from cultivating roses to friendships. But one common denominator is that they tend to bring our mind into a sharper, narrower, more manageable focus while also providing a larger calming context that offers perspective.
Just when we think we have reached some profound, distressing conclusion, baseball — and plenty of our other sports — laughs at us. Get up and play the game.
It’s harder to apply this lesson more broadly. But why couldn’t it work out that way? It’s a very lucky pandemic that can thrive for 18 months; at the rate treatments and vaccines are arriving, why not take the under?
In sports, optimism is not an option. No matter how you get there, even if you have to grind it out, it is an absolute everyday necessity. That’s baseball’s constant reminder — one that never hurts us a bit.