In 1983, the Philadelphia Phillies had a big problem: the Los Angeles Dodgers. In 11 of 12 games during the regular season, the Dodgers defeated the Phillies.
When it mattered most, though, the Phillies won. Philadelphia eliminated Los Angeles, three games to one, in the National League Championship Series. That’s a history lesson Washington Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo can enjoy.
Before last night’s 3-0 win over Atlanta, the Nationals were having about as much fun against the Braves as the Phillies did long ago against the Dodgers. The Nationals are now 2-7 this season against the club expected to be their top challenger to win the NL East. The Nationals are 8-20 against the Braves since opening day of 2013 but can still earn a series split with a win today.
Those are numbers that would stir concern at the highest levels of most organizations. But the Nationals aren’t panicking. They shouldn’t.
Although the Nationals’ mostly awful performance against the Braves — Atlanta has outscored Washington this season 40-24 — rightly raises some questions, there’s no doubt the Nationals have been built the right way.
The Nationals are much more talented than the Braves. Before the regular season ends, don’t be surprised if the Nationals prove it. Rizzo definitely won’t be.
“Am I frustrated that we haven’t played as well as I’d like us to play against the Braves? Yes, I am,” Rizzo told me. “Am I concerned about it? No. We have the talent to play against the Braves — and anybody else in the National League.”
He’s right. Washington’s 25-man roster is strong and deep. The Nationals have power and speed throughout their batting order. You’ll find hard throwers in the rotation and bullpen. By what they’ve already overcome, the Nationals have shown they were built correctly.
While dealing with injuries to key players, first-year Manager Matt Williams often has had to shuffle the batting order and rotation. I know what many of you are thinking: Injuries are part of the game. No argument there.
Three of the five pitchers slated to open 2014 in the Braves’ rotation are out for the season. During a 162-game marathon, bad things happen to most teams.
That established, the Nationals have been hit with an inordinate talent drain. Already in the first half of their schedule, the batting order has gone stretches without Bryce Harper, Adam LaRoche, Wilson Ramos, Denard Span and Ryan Zimmerman. Doug Fister and Gio Gonzalez have been missing from the rotation, though Fister was dominant Saturday night.
Despite having to fill crater-sized holes — Harper and Ramos are expected back soon — the Nationals are back atop the division standings .
Considering everything they’ve faced at this stage of the season, the Nationals are in a solid position, “and that tells me something,” Rizzo said. “That tells me that we have talent, we have depth and we have an organization built for the long haul.
“I’ve said this for a long time: We respect the Braves. We respect the organization and the ballclub, [but] we don’t fear the Braves. We feel that we are a better team than the Braves. I’m not afraid to say it. I think we have more talent and I think we’re a better team.”
The Nationals’ run differential supports Rizzo’s position. Removing the games they have played against the Braves, the Nationals have outscored their opponents by 55 runs. Against the rest of Major League Baseball, the Braves have a minus-29 differential. To get to where they want to go, the Nationals won’t only face the Braves, which Rizzo was eager to remind me.
“The goal is simple,” Rizzo said. “Our focus, our goal, is to win the National League East. You get in the tournament, and then we’ll take our chances against anybody. It doesn’t matter how you get there, who you beat or you don’t beat. We just need to win one more game than everybody else in our division.”
Of course, that doesn’t mean the Nationals’ problems against the Braves are irrelevant. In professional sports, all that matters are wins and losses. For a team that aspires to win the World Series, being dominated by a less-talented division rival is a bad look. If the Nationals don’t get it turned around in their final 10 games against the Braves, it could cost them a postseason berth. Then there’s the mental toughness issue.
As we all remember, the Nationals squandered a two-run, ninth-inning lead against the St. Louis Cardinals in losing Game 5 of the 2012 NL Division Series. Considered the favorite to win last season’s World Series, the Nationals failed to reach the playoffs. In their past 41 games against the Braves and Cardinals — two of the NL’s top teams — the Nationals are 10-31.
The Nationals have to prove they possess the heart as well as the skills to reach the top. They still have a lot to prove. Rizzo knows that, too.
“Obviously, we like to beat the teams in our division. We understand we have to beat them to get to where you want to be,” Rizzo said. “But we have the right preparation, the right mind-set and the right players to compete against the Braves . . . and everybody else. At the end of the season, that’s when we’ll evaluate ourselves.”
That’s the right time to take a look. Hopefully for the Nationals, they’ll have a few more victories against the Braves by then.
For more by Jason Reid, visit washingtonpost.com/reid.
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