“We know we’re capable of winning this whole thing,” said ace Max Scherzer, who is capable of winning his third straight Cy Young Award. “We know we can compete with anybody. That’s a fact. Go ask any other ballclub in this league. Go ask anybody.”
It is tempting to place that story line on the 2018 Nationals and make it theirs alone. Indeed, all the above characters — led by Harper, whose impending free agency will be one of the dominant themes of the sport, and Rizzo, whose potential departure would be every bit as disruptive — could be gone. Better win now, because who knows what’s next?
Except how did you feel in, say, the spring of 2013, when the manager was saying, “World Series or bust”? Or in 2015, when Harper was asking, “Where’s my ring?” That year, as Scherzer arrived to augment a team that had won 96 games, right-hander Jordan Zimmermann and shortstop Ian Desmond were on their way out. Is the coming season appreciably more pressure-packed than that one?
“That’s what we’ve all talked about, really,” Harper said as spring training approached its final week. “It could be Murph. It could be Gio. It could be [catcher Matt] Wieters. It could be anybody. That’s what it’s been every year. It’s something I think this organization has built on, expecting to win ballgames with the guys we have that year.”
Put Harper’s next-year destination aside for a minute, and consider his 2018, because Washington is the only place he can win a title now. At the moment, and for the next six months, that matters. His trick individually, and the Nationals’ trick collectively, will be dismissing the devastation of Game 5 division series losses in 2012, 2016 and 2017 to the St. Louis Cardinals, Los Angeles Dodgers and Chicago Cubs, respectively. That’s part of the fabric of the fan experience, and it would make a title sweeter for those who were in the stands those nights, who walked to their cars or the Metro in a daze. It can’t be the players’ focus. That’s what folds are made of. Don’t try to make up for past pain. Just play.
Dave Martinez, the manager who inherits a roster perhaps 25 other clubs would trade for, was in the other dugout last year, the bench coach for Chicago when the Cubs won a still-can’t-believe-it clincher at Nationals Park. He knows what it’s like to be favored from the first day of spring training. The Nationals aren’t as clear-cut in that role as the Cubs were in 2016. But they also can’t cast themselves as some sort of underdog, because that would be disingenuous. So Martinez’s message is simple: Don’t run from what people expect, but don’t obsess about it, either.
“For me, it’s more about embracing it,” Martinez said. “From day one I told them, I said, ‘Hey, we’re going to play the last game of the World Series and win. That’s what our expectations are. How do we do that? It’s by staying in here. Be present. Don’t be perfect, but be present.’ ”
Maybe that mantra will work. It’s worth a try, and it comes with cred, because the Cubs for whom Martinez served as bench coach in 2016 did in fact play the last game of the World Series — and win. The Nats have burned through managers, with division titles won by Davey Johnson, Matt Williams and Dusty Baker (twice). Next man, and next mantra, up.
Indeed, each year, as the expectations stay the same, the characters change. The only members of that breakthrough 2012 team still remaining in D.C. are mainstay Ryan Zimmerman, lefty Gonzalez, co-ace Stephen Strasburg and Harper, who was a rookie called up late that April. When Harper arrived for his debut in Los Angeles to face the Dodgers, the Nationals were in first place in the National League East. He has never faced a meaningless day in the majors. Even the debacles of 2013 and 2015, when promising teams disappointed, were defined by what those teams might have done.
The immediate aftermath of each of those seasons — particularly the four division series defeats, three in Game 5s hosted in Washington — has been hard to absorb, and not just for the fan base. Harper found himself back home in Las Vegas last October when the National League Championship Series began, listening to music and staring into space. The Cubs and the Dodgers played on. The Nats sat at home.
“You sit there, and you’re like, ‘God, how are we not in L.A. right now playing the Dodgers?’ ” he said. “You look back, a ball rolls this way, a ball rolls that way, and there we are.
“You can’t make excuses, because we have to do it. But I think as a team, we sit there and are like, ‘Man, how are we not there?’ ”
Those are the questions that will need answers should the 2018 ending match those from all those previous runs. The reality is that, immediately after that kind of end, this year’s team would face the weighty issues of whether Rizzo, Harper and the others will remain. Indeed, the franchise’s direction could shift, and dramatically — after the season, not during it.
No one with these Nationals — not the front-office members who have overseen this process nor the scouts on the ground who have helped identify the players nor the coaches in the minors who have overseen their development — sees 2018 as some sort of “window.” That was supposed to be the case in 2015, right? What happened then? The Nats replaced Zimmermann, Desmond and the rest — and won two more division titles. Doug Harris, who oversees player development, will still be readying players for the majors. Kris Kline, who oversees scouting, will still be drafting them. Johnny DiPuglia, who oversees an ever-improving Latin American development program, will be looking for the next Victor Robles.
This is a “window,” sure. But it’s a window for the members of the 2018 Nationals only. It’s not a referendum on baseball in this town. The Nats, right now, have Rizzo ready to make a deal at the deadline, Harper in right and at the plate, Murphy at second and in the box. The offseason, and all its intrigue, doesn’t start until the season is over. And it hasn’t even started yet. Why not revel in the possibility?
“We just have to do it,” Harper said.
And what if they did? Now that would change the course of baseball in Washington.
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