On Sunday, the Nationals came into their clubhouse after drubbing the Braves, 9-2, with 18 hits to split a four-games-in-46-hours series that kept their National League East lead at 31 / 2 games. The rest of their division, the Mets, Marlins and Phils, were all in a state approaching utter collapse.
The Nats should have been happy, relieved and satisfied, after bouncing back from an historic collapse on Friday night when they blew a 9-0 sixth-inning lead to the Braves despite having Stephen Strasburg on the mound.
Winning pitcher Ross Detwiler, who is fast becoming a rotation standout with a 3.25 ERA in 24 starts since last August, had time to answer two cheerful questions about his win before he was asked about Ian Desmond.
Ian Desmond? What about Desmond? Sure, team-leading 17 home runs, sits right over there, six lockers away. Why are you asking about Ian?
He’s going on the disabled list. The MRI exam shows a tear in an oblique muscle on his left side, the one he’s been enduring for the last six weeks.
“I had no idea,” said Detwiler.
Then, in a span of about 10 seconds, Detwiler went through a series of reactions that epitomizes an amazing and brutal Nats season of which Manager Davey Johnson says, “We’ve been lambasted.”
“You don’t want to lose him, an all-star shortstop,” said Detwiler. “But we’ll put the pieces together. That means J-Dub [Jayson Werth] will be back [in a couple of weeks], then Ian.”
Later, Detwiler said, “All year we’ve had to learn to let things roll off our shoulders, like the 11-10 loss on Friday night. You have to let it go.
“There’s one good thing about being so bad for so many years — you get to draft a lot of talent, teach it, build up depth and you end up with the kind of team we have.”
What the Nats seem to have, though no such thing is actually possible, is a bottomless roster of qualified replacements. Second baseman Danny Espinosa, who was a spectacular shortstop in the minors and is currently on a hot-hitting tear, will take over for Desmond. Rookie Steve Lombardozzi, who made only two errors in 122 games in the minors last year and has never made an error at second in the majors, will take over Espinosa’s job.
The net effect, at least for a few weeks? Probably not much. The pair of quick switch-hitting middle infielders would be an upgrade for many teams.
“That’s a big loss. Ian’s been unbelievable,” said Espinosa, one of four Nats with three hits on Sunday, including Ryan Zimmerman, who hit two home runs. “There was this sense that we almost had our whole team back.”
That doesn’t seem to be the script for the ’12 Nats, who have the best record in the National League despite a list of injuries — which have so far spared their stellar starting pitching — that must now qualify as biblical.
Perhaps no quality is more valuable in baseball’s long season than the ability to take a punch. The only way to learn to endure injuries, slumps and losses (such as Friday’s) that defy belief is actually to experience, then surmount them. Individually, players learn patience and develop a deep belief that, given time, their talent will speak and their critics will fall silent. As a team, the habit of defiant resiliency, which is much of what athletic “character” really is, gets born.
No part of the Nationals’ development from “good team” to genuine title contender is more essential than this toughening through adversity, a process that usually takes multiple seasons, including a couple of flops in September or October. However, enough is enough, right?
The Nats are taking this whatever-doesn’t-kill-us-makes-us-stronger stuff to the brink of the ridiculous. The Nats have absorbed so many blows in less than 100 games that somebody should give them a dozen standing eight counts to clear their heads. Yet, so far, it seems to be their defining point of pride.
“Despite all the injuries, it actually feels like all the pieces are fitting. We have a lot of depth that people didn’t know about,” said reliever Tyler Clippard, who took over at closer when Drew Storen missed the first 90 games while Sean Burnett excelled in his former job as setup man. “A lot of players have gotten to show who they really are.
“Overcoming everything that’s thrown at you, like that game on Friday night — that’s what pro sports is about,” said Clippard. “All of this is a testament to how good we are.”
The Nats now play 21 games in a row against teams that, at least for the moment, have losing records. Plenty are decent but, face it, none is much good. Will the Nats play down to the competition or rise to the opportunity?
“Not a problem,” said Clippard. “We’ve been through a lot. What it teaches you is how important each and every day is.”
Without all those injuries, Clippard, Burnett, Bryce Harper, Tyler Moore, Jesus Flores, Lombardozzi, Craig Stammen, Ryan Mattheus, new backup catcher Sandy Leon and even Detwiler, who only joined the rotation because Chien-Ming Wang kept getting hurt, would not have gotten to show who they are. Now, as the various Storens and Werths return, the Nats hardly know where to put everybody who has proved that they can play.
The Nats may stagger, they may, at some point, even have so much adversity that they collapse. Remember, until lefty John Lannan — another layer of their dazzling depth who’s stashed at AAA — won on Saturday night with seven strong innings, even this series could have ended ugly.
But until they do, the Nats not only have the magnetism of novelty but also of a buoyancy that borders on the preposterous. This is perhaps the last practical opportunity for those in close proximity to the Nats to reconsider becoming baseball fans. Once you’re caught, you’re a goner. Be forewarned.
This weekend’s span of 46 hours shows the roller coaster of almost ridiculous emotional swings that pennant races evoke. When the sun went down on Friday, the Nats had that 9-0 lead. Before midnight, they’d blown it and the Braves had matched the biggest comeback in their history back to 1876.
By sundown Saturday, the Nats had lost an afternoon game, 4-0, then trailed 2-0 in a night game, a span in which they’d been outscored 17-1; suddenly they were in danger of a four-game sweep that would knock them out of first place. Yet before happy hour ever arrived on Sunday, the Nats had rallied to win the Saturday nightcap, 5-2, then added Sunday’s Atlanta stomping to the fun, answering the Braves with a 14-2 blitz of their own.
That’s 9-0, 1-17 and 14-2. Good thing battles between first- and second-place teams don’t have momentum swings.
With Desmond out, another chapter to the Nats ’12 saga is inevitable. Tune out now, before it is too late. Or run the risk of being held prisoner by baseball and the Nationals for months.
For Thomas Boswell’s previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.