This October brings some real questions about chemistry and baseball, about the Nationals who lead the Houston Astros two games to none in the World Series and all the Nats teams from postseasons past. They are unanswerable. Let’s try anyway.
The easy narrative about these Nats — winners of 18 of their past 20 games, the best record in baseball since some (read: me) left them for dead before Memorial Day — is that they get along, they like each other, they have fun, and therefore they win. It’s an attitude, in this telling, born in the days when the only folks who believed were within that clubhouse.
“We were just, ‘Hey, screw it, let’s go out and have some fun and play ball,’” third baseman Anthony Rendon said Wednesday night in Houston. “And whatever it was, something clicked, and it turned around and we’ve been trying to ride that wave ever since and keep on just going.”
There is a chicken-and-egg factor here. Are the Nationals winning because they’re having fun? Or are they having fun because they’re winning? Pull up a barstool. We can debate all night.
What’s undeniable is the “having fun” part. There are so many ways the Nats are expressing that. In Wednesday’s 12-3 thrashing of the Astros in Game 2, right fielder Adam Eaton smoked a two-run homer to right and returned to the dugout, where his teammates welcomed him.
For months now, the Nationals have been celebrating home runs by dancing. Sometimes it’s elegant. Sometimes it’s awkward. It’s almost always hysterical. It’s become their thing. Fox’s broadcast of Game 2 highlighted it after Kurt Suzuki broke a tie in the sixth, complete with Juan Soto on the drums — er, I guess that was a water cooler. But when Eaton came down the steps, he plopped down on the bench with veteran teammate Howie Kendrick.
“Everybody kind of has dance moves, and they do their dance routine,” Eaton said.
Around the all-star break, Eaton and Kendrick, both car enthusiasts, decided to, um, shift gears. (Sorry.) They grab a pretend stick shift, shove in the clutch — and they’re off to the races.
“Now, we love it,” Eaton said. “I look forward to it. I round the bases like, ‘Man, I get to drive.’”
Is that what allowed the Nationals to beat Gerrit Cole and Justin Verlander on consecutive nights? It can’t be. But it can’t hurt.
Baseball is so interesting in this regard. It is a team sport in which every single play hinges on an individual interaction, that between pitcher and hitter. Whether Victor Robles gets along with Stephen Strasburg should have no impact on whether Strasburg can execute a 3-2 curveball with two outs and two on in the bottom of the sixth. Whether Sean Doolittle goes to dinner with Trea Turner won’t affect whether Turner can steal a base or Doolittle can close a game.
Still, there’s something to this. Strasburg, for instance, is — how to put this? — an introvert. Yet late in the season, reserve outfielder Gerardo Parra and fellow starting pitcher Anibal Sanchez, occasionally with help from infielder Asdrubal Cabrera, have engulfed the big right-hander in massive hugs at the conclusion of his outings. They are uncomfortable. And they are a riot.
“I’m not much of a hugger,” Strasburg said earlier in the postseason.
Ah, teammates. They sense that. They know that. So they double down. Wednesday night, they hugged Strasburg. Then they hugged some more. Then they hugged some more. They would not let go.
“You have to embrace it,” Strasburg said, presumably with no pun intended. “They start squeezing me a little bit harder every time, but that’s okay.”
All this gives the impression that the Nats’ love for each other is impacting their results, that if Strasburg received only perfunctory handshakes when he completed his outings somehow he wouldn’t pitch as well the next time out.
Chemistry, in an athletic sense, would seem to matter more in, say, basketball, in which the ball must be shared and a hog can ruin a team. Football needs a quarterback to understand where his receivers will be and when, and he’s protected by linemen who must understand the strengths and weaknesses of each other. Hockey requires teammates to know where the others are on the ice — and where they likely will go next. That’s chemistry.
In baseball, you can argue that a shortstop and a second baseman must be in sync on how to turn a double play. Outfielders must communicate on fly balls. Infielders must line up to serve as the cutoff man. Everyone must understand the signs. But even so-called selfless acts in baseball — hitting behind the runner, laying down a sacrifice bunt, taking a pitch off the elbow to get on base — don’t really involve interactions with teammates.
Where chemistry matters in baseball, then, is less on the field and more in the clubhouse. It’s not just that a baseball season involves twice as many games as a hockey or basketball season. It’s the hours in the clubhouse before first pitch. It’s the bus rides. It’s the flights. It’s spring training. It’s the February-to-October everydayness, the totality.
“We spend so much time with each other,” first baseman Ryan Zimmerman said earlier in the postseason. “It’s more time than we spend with our families, and it’s not really close. You have to like each other, or it’s not going to be much fun.”
That can impact performance. That matters.
A final thought on this: The elephant who left the room. Before this season, the Nationals reached the playoffs four times. Each of those times, they failed to get out of the first round. Each of those teams employed Bryce Harper. That has provided some opportunistic folks with a couple of dots to connect: Harper isn’t here, so the Nats finally broke through.
I’m not buying it. Harper is, for whatever reason(s), a polarizing figure in baseball, and has even become a polarizing figure among his former fan base. There is truth in the idea that, in 2018, his impending free agency hung over the clubhouse. He is magnetic. When he’s around, others notice. He’s a star.
But did Bryce Harper prevent the Nationals from moving on in October? Come on. How’s that possible?
What we know is possible is what we’re seeing play out each night of this postseason. These Nationals are smiling. These Nationals are dancing. These Nationals are winning. Assign whatever meaning you want to any of it. Dave Martinez, who manages these guys, has a message for them each day.
“Have fun,” Martinez said. “Enjoy the moment.”
They are. As individuals. And as a team. How much that matters is impossible to say. What we know: It’s damn fun to watch.
For more by Barry Svrluga, visit washingtonpost.com/svrluga.
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