Two things worth remembering, in the current context: Those Nats went on to win 11 of their next 13 games. And those Nats finished seven games behind the New York Mets in the National League East, missing the playoffs.
Thursday night’s comeback from a 9-0 deficit against the Miami Marlins must be the same kind of temporary prod to pull these Nationals out of their funk, but it needs to have more permanence than the comeback against the Braves did three years ago. That team was decidedly different than this one. Then, Trea Turner was playing Class AA ball in the San Diego Padres’ system; on Thursday night, he drove in eight runs and hit the go-ahead grand slam. Werth was the starting left fielder and three-hole hitter in the Uggla game; now he’s retired. Matt Williams was the manager, Ian Desmond the shortstop, Denard Span the center fielder, Drew Storen the closer. Those roles have all turned over, some more than once.
The fear, though, would be that this club has some of what felled that club. And that would be a sense of entitlement.
It’s easy to forget, as we granularly analyze the day-to-day foibles of the Nationals, that they have been among the best teams in baseball for more than half a dozen years. Since 2012, only the Los Angeles Dodgers have won more games. We forget that because the Nationals still haven’t won a playoff series. We forget that, too, because we become consumed with their current state, which — putting Thursday’s comeback aside — has been alarmingly blah. They trail both Atlanta and Philadelphia in the standings. The playoffs not only aren’t a given. They’re a challenge not easily met.
All that winning over the years, framed correctly, can lead to a swagger that says, from first pitch each night, “We’re here to beat you.” And people believe. The Nats have essentially been favored to win the division each year since 2013 — with the possible exception of 2016, when the Mets seemed ascendant. (As an aside, if you’re looking for an example of how fragile winning clubs are both in personnel and attitude, check no further than Flushing.)
But all that winning also can lead to “World Series or bust” (Davey Johnson, spring training 2013) and “Where’s my ring?” (Bryce Harper, spring training 2015). There’s a fine line between swagger and stupidity.
The two “disappointing” Nats teams of this winning era — the 2013 version won 86 games, the 2015 Nats 83 — differ on the roster and at the helm. But those groups had that entitled nature that this one must avoid. When winning comes easily, it can feel inevitable. It is, of course, much harder than that.
The 2015 season was marked by Max Scherzer’s arrival, giving the Nationals a rotation of Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, in-his-prime Jordan Zimmermann, Gio Gonzalez and Doug Fister. (I mean, Harper’s “Where’s my ring?” reaction to the Scherzer signing doesn’t seem that off, does it?) When those Nationals lost eight of 10 in June or were swept three straight by the Mets straddling July and August, their general reaction was, “We’ll be fine.”
They were not fine. Sure, they were never healthy, and, yes, the Mets’ trade-deadline addition of Yoenis Cespedes had — how to put this? — a more positive impact on New York than Jonathan Papelbon’s arrival had on the Nats.
But there was something about that team that didn’t bother me enough during that summer, and it should have. Those Nats had, somehow, lost sight of the idea that division titles are earned, not granted. They forgot that talent doesn’t always win out.
If the current group understands that — and Wednesday’s players-only meeting is a good initial indication that it might — then Washington could be in for a summer of baseball unlike any we have seen since the sport returned here in 2005. Think about the manner in which the Nationals won their four division titles, in 2012, ’14, ’16 and ’17.
Washington’s position at the all-star break, respectively: up four games, tied, up six and up 9½ .
Washington’s position on Aug. 1: up 2½ games, up 1½ , up five and up 13.
Washington’s position on Sept. 1: up 6½ games, up seven, up 10½ and up 15.
Total days out of first place after the all-star break in those four seasons: one.
The Nationals, when they have been successful, have been front-runners. They know it. And so the most interesting thing said over the past week or so came from Harper, whose offensive funk has mirrored that of his club.
“We’ve never been in this position before, and I think it’s an exciting time for us,” Harper told reporters after Wednesday’s loss completed a sweep to the Red Sox. “In years past, we’ve won the division by a lot of games, and we’re able to be behind right now. I’m excited to get out there and test it.”
That’s what it is, a test. The Nationals have never passed this kind before. Their only hope is to understand their talent only will help them in this quest. Neither the Braves nor the Phillies think the Nats are entitled to anything.
For more by Barry Svrluga, visit washingtonpost.com/svrluga.