This is as good as it gets.
For a big league baseball team, nothing is ever perfect, and worries never entirely disappear. But for the Washington Nationals, it’s important to understand how rare it is to enter any postseason with such a complete team, so many stars of all types, excellent health, no clear weakness, strong morale and six seasons of pent up motivation.
Now the question is: Will the stars come out and shine, starting Friday night?
When the National League Division Series against the defending world champion Chicago Cubs begins at Nationals Park at 7:31 p.m., will the Nats respond to Manager Dusty Baker’s slogan after the team’s workout Tuesday: “This is hero time.”
Some teams, the Nats and Washington Capitals among them, have talked, with justification, about their multiyear championship “windows” in recent years. But there are moments when it’s time to shut windows, and mouths, and kick down some doors. When almost everything falls in place at the right time, you need to know it. This is one of those times for the Nats and their fans, too.
If they don’t commit to this main chance, including the pain if things don’t work out, then they are not living in their moment. In Cleveland and Houston, as one Nats coach pointed out, other teams, at this moment, also are sitting just like the Nats: about as good as it’s ever going to get for anyone.
This postseason is overloaded with eight special teams, including at least four that could win a title in plenty of years. Someone’s going to lose. Several someones, in fact. Whichever team loses this Cubs-Nats series is going to think, whether they admit it or not, “We just lost a clean shot at winning a world title.”
Well, then, you cry. But don’t pretend your stars haven’t aligned merely because folks in other towns see the same thing and also say, “Wow.”
All teams talk about how they try to get better every season. And the Nats have that patter down, too. Really? For sure? Will Ryan Zimmerman hit 36 homers again? Will major injuries be avoided the way Bryce Harper escaped a season-ending injury seven weeks ago? If a player of Adam Eaton’s value is lost for the season, will he be replaced by a Michael A. Taylor who, according to FanGraphs, was the NL’s 31st-best player, even though he missed 44 games.
Will all the special pieces of the puzzle that make the Nats such a deep, multifaceted team still be in place next Opening Day? Will Brandon Kintzler, an all-star but also a free agent, be back to fill out the bullpen firm of Kintzler, Madson and Doolittle? Will there still be a bench tandem as excellent as Adam Lind and Howie Kendrick who had 100 RBI and a .306 average in 572 combined at-bats this year? They would even make a perfect DH platoon in the World Series.
If the Nats lose to the Cubs, will Baker be back as manager? The Nats owners could have cleared that up with a one-year extension for a few million dollars, but they didn’t — an unforced error. Next season, with Daniel Murphy and Harper in their walk years, will contracts be a distraction? Will last-chance-to-win tension build?
Will four men — Harper, Murphy, Anthony Rendon (100 RBI) and Zimmerman (108 RBI) — all have superb on-base-plus-slugging-percentage marks over .925? Just a handful of teams have had that many in 50 years. This season, just 19 players in both leagues combined reached that level. Four were Nats.
The Nats wanted their lineup to get hot at the right time. Well, look what just happened. Final-week OPS marks of Zimmerman, Murphy, Rendon, Trea Turner, Taylor and Jayson Werth were: 1.287, 1.207, 1.064, .995, .948 and .833. Some poor pitching obscured the hitting. But is that hot enough for you?
“We may be clicking at the right time,” Werth said. What if Harper, who had a walk and two line-drive hits Sunday, joins the list? Except for catcher Matt Wieters, the Nats’ lineup has no hole.
The Nats wanted to find one fine reliever to stop their late-inning bleeding. Instead, General Manager Mike Rizzo somehow landed three of them before the trade deadline. Then Matt Albers came up with a 1.64 ERA career year. The Nats just hoped that Strasburg, injured last year, could stay healthy to contribute this October. Instead, he is the hottest pitcher in baseball (0.86 ERA in his last 10 starts).
Because the D.C. Troll wouldn’t have it otherwise, there is one ornery sound emerging from under the 14th Street Bridge. Come on, you know you wanted something to worry about. On Wednesday, Scherzer will have his first bullpen session since leaving his Saturday start after 54 pitches as a precaution following a twinge of pain in his right hamstring. An MRI exam showed nothing significant.
Scherzer likely will pitch Game 2 with Strasburg in Game 1. If there’s a Game 5, the Nats would pick because both would have full rest. Scherzer expects no issue, but he is also holding his breath because he can’t be sure.
“I can lift weights, run, throw a baseball. It’s a tough thing to even diagnose myself to tell the [medical] staff,” Scherzer said Tuesday. “It only shows its head when I’m throwing at or close to 100 percent.”
Unfortunately, he feels the strain most when he fully extends to throw his change-up, his best pitch this season.
“You wonder, ‘How did this even come about?’ ” said Scherzer, who doesn’t know whether a line drive off his calf several starts ago somehow contributed. Mad Max is perturbed because he and his body have had a lifelong agreement: You be indestructible, and I won’t fire you. His body may be renegotiating.
Still, to be clear, when asked whether he might miss the whole Cubs series, his blue eye and his brown eye competed to see which bolted open most widely.
“Oh, yeah, I’m pitching in the NLDS,” he said, laughing. “What I’m trying to convey is we won’t know until I’m in a game . . . [and] find out that this is going to hold.”
Going to hold? You gulped. I saw it. When D.C. looks for reasons to worry, we don’t grasp at straws. We go straight to the main menu and grab an alligator.
Stop it. Bad habits are hard to break, but Washington needs to understand that it’s got hold of this baseball playoffs thing by the wrong end. This isn’t a team with problems. It’s a team with so many middle-of-the-order bats that it may catch up with the times and keep Harper hitting No. 2. It may push Scherzer back a day so that, horrors, Strasburg, baseball’s hottest pitcher, starts Game 1.
The Nats had live batting practice Tuesday as they mulled their last roster decisions. Do you keep warp-speed Victor Robles, 20, probably a future star, or breakout rookie Brian Goodwin, back from the DL, who hit 13 homers in less than half of a season? Will power lefty Enny Romero even make their loaded bullpen?
“Enny just threw me a 101-mph fastball on the outside corner,” Werth said, “so he’s pretty good.”
So are the Nats. For them, this truly is as good as it gets. That’s not a guarantee of anything, except, probably, a whole lot of chilling thrills. Very soon.
For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.