I often talk to in-the-know baseball people, who for the purpose of this column will be called “John” and “Frank” (not their real names; their real names are Thomas Boswell and George Will). Anyhow, John and Frank say to stop worrying, to remember a season is a biathlon or a biennial or a millennium, I forget. Whatever, the point is it’s Ken Burns long; 162 games is not a jog on the towpath. Therefore, if any team appears to be having a cardiac event after 21 games, don’t worry. There are weeks and months to put in a stent and have open-heart surgery before September.
Now, if the Nationals are 44-55 at the end of July, it’s wholly appropriate, by gatekeeper-of-the-game standards, to freak out and have a conniption. Until then, keep your trap shut, deal with Ian Desmond swinging violently at air, tolerate a bullpen occasionally imploding and weather the storm of Stephen Strasburg trying to paint corners like Greg Maddux instead of remembering he needs to act like the SINGLE GREATEST FLAMETHROWER IN THE UNIVERSE (or at least since Roger Clemens). Basically, wait and watch bad baseball until it becomes good again.
Fine. We’ll try patience. After all, Desmond said on Wednesday that somebody needs to pay soon for the silence of the Nationals’ bats. It happened Thursday night in an 8-1 victory over the Reds, a game in which Gio Gonzalez was not only brilliant, but actually got some run support.
But can we at least acknowledge, having been swept by the Cardinals and Braves already, that Davey Johnson’s club stinks against good teams (the Nats are 5-1 against the Marlins and 6-10 against everyone else)? Outscored by 19 runs this season until Thursday, the purported best staff in the National League has given up 22 home runs. Beyond Bryce Harper, the hometown nine not only have yet to hit for power and average, they don’t hit period. Nats bats at the moment couldn’t bust a grape in Middleburg.
Frankly, if the Nats don’t start making a little headway in the National League East — where they already were five games behind the Braves until winning Thursday night — the 2014 slogan is going to be something along the lines of “Nobody Beats The Marlins Like Us.”
History, of course, smiles on all great teams who took a while to get going. The 1914 Boston Braves were 3-16 after 19 games, finished 94-59 and went on to sweep the Philadelphia Athletics in the World Series. The 2012 San Francisco Giants were 10-10 last April before catching their breath and again peaking at the right time to win the World Series.
But neither Buster Posey nor Possum Whitted got half of their first 10 victories over the fish, which are basically the Astros with better scenery and a higher payroll.
It’s probably too early to even entertain the notion that these vaunted paper champions could not be as good a team as last year. But let’s humor ourselves over a couple of key issues concerning why the Nationals lost four straight and scored four runs in those four games before they faced the Reds.
Adam LaRoche is 33, the age when skill-and-power erosion often naturally happens in baseball. Was it wise to bring him back at that salary? No-brainer. He’s a catalyst in that clubhouse and a calming presence. Even though he has recently looked overmatched at the plate, the team’s real MVP of last season will have more big hits and momentum-changing moments. But he’s simply older and won’t have the same year as 2012.
The offense was also anemic at the beginning of last season, but the pitching got them through some tough days at the plate. On paper, Dan Haren was an upgrade from Edwin Jackson as a starter. But then, on paper, Denard Span and Rafael Soriano were also acquisitions that improved the roster. On the field, there is no real evidence yet.
When it comes to what’s really ailing the Nats, Jayson Werth hit the nail on the head after Wednesday’s loss. He said that one of the great things about the Nats is they have a bunch of defiant SOBs in their clubhouse (except his words were a little choicer). Guys like Desmond, who swings early in the count, swings hard and appears to be on the verge of hitting the ball to the Caribbean or tearing his oblique.
“I swing for big-time contact every time,” Desmond said. “It is what it is. Sometimes you hit it. Sometimes you miss. But you gotta keep on swinging.”
The trouble with too many players with that mentality is they all want to fix the problem with malicious intent when actually taking a pitch, relaxing and reversing the force coming at you works better in slumps. As Werth said, “Right now, that part of our personality is working against us.”
“I think we need to jumble it up and we need to switch the mojo a little bit,” Werth added. “Somebody was talking about Phil Jackson the other day. We need to call him up, have him come in here and burn some sage or something. We’re not very feng shui right now.”
Span said he noticed a lot of parallels between the future Hall-of-Fame NBA coach and Davey Johnson. “The Lakers would be getting run out of the gym during a 30-2 run and Phil wouldn’t call a timeout. He would let them figure it out. He knew that would give them more confidence in themselves than yelling at them during a timeout. Davey is like that.”
Now, yes. No worries, it’s baseball. Come July, you just hope the Nationals haven’t dug themselves a hole that makes throwing a conniption wholly appropriate.
For Mike Wise’s previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/wise.