Anyone who doesn’t love watching regular season Nationals games this year — whether they score 23 runs or hit five homers in one inning or win 1-0 with a near no-hitter by Gio Gonzalez on Monday night — just doesn’t get it. Six months of steady pleasure, punctuated by games of total shock, is just as valuable as six days of jubilation or dejection in October.
This season, more so than any of the Nats’ previous five straight winning years, obsessing over hypothetical “parades” seems like willful wastefulness when so much arrives every days, both thrilling and chilling.
On any given day, Anthony Rendon might go 6 for 6 with 10 RBI, Stephen Strasburg might fan 15, Max Scherzer might take a no-hitter into the ninth inning, Trea Turner might hit for the cycle or Bryce Harper and Ryan Zimmerman might homer on back-to-back pitches to cap a four-straight-homer barrage. We know this because each already has happened.
Or, because this isn’t a fairy tale, Strasburg might flex his fingers in the third inning and walk off the mound straight onto the disabled list. Or Scherzer could hit his first career home run, hippety-hop around the bases in amazement, yet minutes later wince in pain and take himself out of the game after just one inning because of neck spasms. Is the season doomed? Or did he just sleep wrong?
Every night, this Nats season is riveting because it alternately presages the very best that MLB can offer or the bitterest dregs if injured Nats keep dropping like flies. This bunch has scored 10 or more runs 17 times and had eight walk-off wins in less than two-thirds of a season. It’s on pace to score 888 runs, 99 more than any big league team in Washington’s history, dating from 1901.
But anyone who doesn’t also cringe watching these Nats, who have 10 men on the disabled list, with Adam Eaton and Joe Ross already out for the year, does not grasp the precariousness of beautiful seasons. In the past week, the Nats finally have shown signs of the energy drain from compensating for the steady subtraction of key players since April. Will reinforcements return quickly enough?
The Nats are far from being the only “how-can-you-not-watch-’em” team this season. The Dodgers just had a 40-6 streak, the best long run in MLB since the 1941 Yankees (with Hall of Famer Bill Dickey as merely their eighth-best player). The young Astros may slug the American League into submission for years. The reigning champion Cubs, thanks to trade-deadline infusions, have gone from somnambulant to alarmingly awake.
And the charisma-packed Nats might do anything — fabulous, fragile or karmically futile — at any time. They are probably the most fun regular season team to watch in Washington since the 1924 Senators had four Hall of Famers and a colorful collection of gents who, despite lacking a single whisker or mustache in their team picture, went by Muddy, Bucky, Goose, Ossie, Firpo, Nemo, Doc, Mule, Showboat, Wid, Chick, Pinky, By, Curly, Slim and the Big Train. Not a single “Ryan.”
The current Nats have the three best players in the National League by winsabove replacement in Scherzer, Rendon and Harper. That’s once-a-generation stuff. Yet in Las Vegas odds, the Nats are tied with the Cubs for the third-best odds to win the World Series, at 7 to 1.
How do you cope with that? Or, perhaps more pointedly, how warped is the state of your sports mental health if you can’t enjoy the Nats to the fullest now, every minute, for as long as their season lasts?
The same situation faces fans of the Dodgers, who have their best team since (at least) the 1988 champs, and the Astros, who clearly have their best team ever. Nats fans wring their hands over Scherzer and Strasburg, while Astros followers fret about aces Lance McCullers Jr., who had a 9.64 ERA in July, and Dallas Keuchel, just back from the disabled list and battling to find his form.
The Dodgers? Clayton Kershaw might miss another month because of a recurrence of what is now chronic lower back pain. Yes, L.A. traded for Yu Darvish. But Texas was 2-10 in his past dozen starts with his ERA at 4.01. Is he healthy? Tipping his pitches?
Baseball seldom has seen so many loaded ballclubs in one year. Sane World Series briefs also can be filed for the Yankees, Red Sox, Indians, Diamondbacks and Rockies, all recently upgraded, especially the Yankees. The 83-78 Cardinals of 2006 may prove that half the teams in the sport actually still have a prayer.
Fans of contenders who fixate on October get what they deserve: a nearly 90 percent chance of disappointment and recrimination against their own team and a 100 percent certainty that they diminished six months of something that should have given them a kick every day.
So don’t waste the 2017 Nats — or Dodgers, Astros, Cubs and Yankees. The Nats give us almost everything the sport offers. And they provide it in a dugout full of smiles, silly hand slaps, laughs and pranks, not strangle holds.
Unless Scherzer misses significant time, he probably will distance himself even more than he has from the injured Kershaw in pursuit of back-to-back NL Cy Young Awards and the third of his career. How important is that? It could be his ticket to Cooperstown someday, his proof of utter dominance in his prime. Just nine men have won three or more Cy Youngs: Roger Clemens, Randy Johnson, Greg Maddux, Steve Carlton, Jim Palmer, Sandy Koufax, Kershaw, Tom Seaver and Pedro Martinez.
Harper is the front-runner to win his second MVP. He’s 24. Willie Mays, Ted Williams, Johnny Bench and Cal Ripken each won two — in their careers.
If you love WAR, Rendon leads Harper for MVP because he has as perfectly balanced a five-tool game as anyone in the sport. And his hitting has leaped a level. This spring, he opened his stance, moved closer to the plate and has commanded the outside corner better, chased fewer sliders and forced pitchers to come inside where they confront his greatest strength: lightning-fast hands.
How’s that working out? FansGraphs points out he is drawing career-high walks with career-low strikeouts. He has improved markedly at chasing fewer pitches outside the strike zone while swinging more at those inside it. With two strikes, no one has swung and missed at a lower rate, yet Rendon also hits with power with two strikes.
So you might pay attention during this guy’s at-bats because they’re art.
Two more months is a long time for Harper, Rendon, Murphy and Zimmerman to stay healthy and hot. But if they all end up with 25 homers, 100 RBI, a .300 average and a .900 on-base-plus-slugging average — and they’re all well above those paces — we’ll have to figure out if any team had such a quartet. The 1927 Yankees’ Murderers’ Row, while better overall, didn’t hit all those marks.
Even the Nats manager is chasing history. Dusty Baker, one of the most cheerful, funny and wise baseball characters ever, may win a fourth Manager of the Year award — another step in his quest to be the first African American manager in Cooperstown. Few skippers ever produce a .600 team despite so many injuries and months of a worst-on-earth bullpen. Dusty might.
Did I mention that Turner led the majors in steals when he got hurt? Or that Gonzalez is third in MLB in ERA (2.66) behind only Kershaw and Scherzer? Or that the Nats have won an incredible 44 of Strasburg’s past 56 starts? Or that Murphy, who barely missed a batting title last year, is in that chase again? For many teams those afterthoughts might constitute season highlights.
Is there anything else? If bearded Sean Doolittle, bald Ryan Madson and Brandon Kintzler, with his command of nasty late-breaking stuff, transform the bullpen from a funeral pyre to a celebratory bonfire in October, they will become local folk heroes. And those Jonathan Papelbon, Drew Storen and Blake Treinen nightmares might recede.
It’s not like this every year in every city. In Washington, in the past century, you can count on the fingers of one hand the teams that were this entertaining.
So the next time someone tells you that the Nats haven’t accomplished anything yet, because they haven’t won a five-game postseason series, just say, “Great point. You’re probably wise not to waste your eyesight on them.”
Then go watch them yourself.
For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.
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