Baseball breaks your heart, but first it breaks your will. The “snap” that you have heard for four years at Nationals Park is the pressure of the great vicious sport — finally, after months — snapping the poise, the ability to compete with your nerves under complete control, of key Nationals players.
This is not unique to the Nats. In fact, it is closer to the norm for teams in the last stages of a full-year defeat. Sometimes both teams “deserve to win,” like the Giants and Royals in the 2014 World Series when nobody cracked at all.
But midseason showdowns, pennant race confrontations and too many playoff series to count have games — or moments within them — when one team goes into panic.
On Tuesday, the Nats’ bullpen had a group anxiety attack in the seventh inning. The pitchers’ lost confidence — and the sense that confidence had been lost in them by almost everybody around them — took all summer to lock into place. The past 10 days iced it, as late leads of 5-3, 5-3, 5-3 and then 7-1 on Tuesday became defeats that perplex baseball probability but fall directly into the realm of psychology.
Morbid psychology. On Tuesday, Drew Storen issued the last three of six Washington walks in a six-run gift of a Mets seventh inning. Couldn’t throw a strike. On Wednesday, he replaced Stephen Strasburg, who had fanned 13. Storen threw a strike — one. The Mets’ Yoenis Cespedes almost hit it to the Metro station for a two-run homer and a 4-2 lead.
The Nats’ bullpen’s utter collapse mirrors many a team’s competitive last gasp: one part of the team disintegrates, but not everyone capitulates. Even in the face of home-and-home sweeps by the Mets, Bryce Harper made a defiant personal statement. Seven games behind? Here’s a homer and double off Jacob deGrom. Only 23 to play? Here’s another homer into the second deck to cut the lead to 4-3.
“Kid’s showtime,” Ian Desmond said, bleak but proud of his teammate. “He’s turned into quite the beast.”
The real beast, of course, is the harsh game itself. Such team devastations take every available form. Batting orders can suffer such group implosions, like the totally healthy Nats lineup that hit .164 in last season’s playoffs. At other times, even the best players cannot endure the strain that lasts seven months. The great Clayton Kershaw, his past four playoff starts, four losses, 7.15 ERA, has essentially knocked the Dodgers from the past two Octobers.
If we wrote off every team that endures such things, there would be a black line through the names of all 30 teams in the major leagues — as the extreme example, even the New York Yankees of Derek Jeter’s prime. In 2004, one win from reaching the World Series, New York lost four straight to Boston. By Games 6 and 7 you could sense the Yankees “snapping” finally under the accumulated strain.
It’s seldom just one team that approaches a breaking point. The difference between teams is not that great. On Tuesday, the Mets’ Matt Harvey, in the midst of an innings-limit controversy with his own team, gave up seven runs, tying the worst of his career. Also, the Mets let a groundball that hit the pitcher’s mound roll to the center field fence, untouched for 400 feet, as four Nats scored — a Little League grand slam.
The wise say “to know all is to forgive all.” However, that’s not baseball, where you keep score and nobody gets an erasure. Six straight Mets wins against the Nats answer all questions.
If the Nats’ brass and ownership ignore or even sanitize the team’s issue of bad nerves in a crisis, then the Nats can’t improve, won’t get past Game 5 in 2012 or the walkabout wasted 2013 season or Games 2 and 4 against the underdog Giants in last season’s NLDS.
The Nats must confront a four-year pattern of snapping, in part because the team signs off on its own pressure-building World Series talk. Who wants to endure moments like this series that send thousands of fans to the Metro with expressions of glazed, disbelieving pain that we usually reserve for real-life miseries?
Baseball is profoundly rude. Proof: D.C.’s best baseball era since the 1930s will be remembered — and not joyfully — for one of its very best people: Storen. Three seasons, three images, three innings that ended so badly they defied belief. How does the game sleep at night?
“I’ve been through a good bit of adversity in my career,” said the understated Storen, always the stand-up guy, describing his hanging slider Wednesday night. “Dig down, get through it, push forward.”
Obviously, change is coming. Storen was almost certainly going to be traded this winter. Now he must be. The exodus of a half-dozen other free agents will change the clubhouse deeply — but also clear more than $50 million in payroll.
Usually, collapses by “all-in” preseason World Series favorites are followed by a lack of options for the immediate future. The Nats break that mold. They have trade pieces and payroll flexibility. Also, the Nats still have decent team chemistry. It’s not what it was, not with so many walk-year vets, and the last week has done damage we don’t see yet. But this is no blow-it-up team.
However, managers who preside over such doings, who look bad when they manage their bullpen their own way but look worse (Monday and Tuesday) when they start managing it the way the public and critics say they should, seldom keep jobs.
Defeat demands victims as victory makes heroes. Matt Williams’s problem is that large portions of the populace now think he is certifiably inept or simply too inexperienced, and each fan has his or her own table full of prosecution exhibits. Some players do, too. Is the bullpen shredded because it’s fundamentally bad? Or is part of its stench because of overwork or misuse?
Most annoying, Williams seldom, if ever, takes specific blame for a particular mistake. He is only “accountable” in the painless generalized sense of “we could all do better” or “I look in the mirror every day.” If so, does he see a manager?
The Nats are allowed to try to fight their way out of their box canyon. But some memories don’t go away and shouldn’t. The Nats snapped — again. Baseball does this to good teams and sometimes near-great ones with relentless regularity. But the Nats’ pattern is there. The whole sport sees it.
The Nats need a stronger spine, one less likely to crack. They don’t need to fix all the vertebrae. But it is backbone, something no baseball analysis has ever been able to define, much less measure, that’s now one of the core issues.
On Wednesday, the Nats took their official team picture for 2015. Nobody wore a bag over his head. But none of them looked like they expected to get a ring, either.
Craig Stammen, the much-missed injured reliever, watched the dismal day and said, “I had a teammate once who said, ‘Who says there’s no crying in baseball?’ Every year, there are one or two games that make me cry all night.”
Or sometimes three in a row.
For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.