Sometimes you need a sane summer vacation to see how habitual our sports grouching has become. We’ve created an indigestion industry. Could we recognize the good old days if we were living them?
There’s an example currently in view. Let’s cock our heads at a different angle toward the first-place Washington Nationals. Don’t search for the worst immediately. (Later, I promise.)
Since a poor start, the Nationals have played at a 96-win pace for the past 10 weeks. They have a five-game lead over the injured Atlanta Braves, who are in the midst of a 2-13 collapse and play their next 12 games against winning teams The Nats’ playoff odds have now hit 90 percent. They’ve outscored foes by the NL’s largest margin, a characteristic of 12 of the past 24 pennant winners.
Most impressive, the Nats have survived injuries that have let them employ their one-through-eight opening day lineup just 18 times. They are 13-5 in those games, average 5.6 runs (astronomical) and outscore foes by a huge two runs a game.
Every day the Nats are tempted by what they might be if healthy, yet tormented by the reality of a season that will probably end up being more than 80 percent shorthanded. That aggravation won’t get better soon, if at all. Ryan Zimmerman, with a Grade 3 hamstring tear, may miss another month. Or he may not be back until 2015.
Since he got hurt, the Nats are 9-10 and have scored just about four runs a game . Is he that tactically or psychologically valuable? It’s not logical. But it may be true. The Nats’ high ambitions may hinge on whether he can come back at all.
That’s unknowable. What’s clear, however, is that the team’s wrestling match with the disabled list, and the consequent grumbling about their inability to “run away” with the NL East, has disguised a staunch season. The big question that baseball’s Long Season always asks is not: “Will you have bad breaks?” It is: “How will you cope and where will you position yourself for October?” The ’13 Nats positioned themselves “at home, watching on TV.”
Some players have an ideal baseball attitude. It’s as much a gift as a great fastball or bat speed. This has been a disappointing summer for ultra-talented Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and Bryce Harper, though any of them may rediscover his best form at any time. Yet they have been “picked up” by other Nats.
Anthony Rendon not only leads the NL in runs, but also in spontaneous grins and time spent napping in the batter’s box between pitches. He wakes up in time to hit a double up the gap. If he is joy, then Ian Desmond is determination. Despite a mountain of strikeouts, he keeps hacking and stands fourth in the league in RBI, remarkable for any shortstop. Denard Span, one of those underappreciated, steady types, has finally gotten some of his due reaching base in 36 straight games, a streak that ended Tuesday night.
Every time Tanner Roark takes the mound he has the beaming look of a man who just found a winning lottery ticket under a sofa cushion. And he has MLB’s fourth-best ERA (2.50) since arriving last year. Focus: In 11 of 28 starts, Roark has gone at least seven innings and allowed one run or fewer (39 percent); that’s far better than Strasburg’s career rate (16 percent).
If a team ever needed to add a man with a perfect pro’s attitude — aggressive, confident, alert to every detail — it was these Nats. It turned out to be Doug Fister, the steal of the offseason, with an 12-3 record and a 2.34 ERA. Think the Tigers wish they had him back?
The person whose work has been most obscured is Manager Matt Williams, who has improved the fundamentals and defense he was hired to fix. The Nats now stop the running game better than any team, after being atrocious last season. No Nats pitcher is worse than average at holding runners, not even Strasburg. The Nats have allowed only 43 of 71 thieves to succeed, the best caught stealing rate (39.4 percent).
Which team is No. 1 when it does try to steal? Yes, the Nats, who’ve stolen 66 of 77 times (86 percent), edging the Moneyball A’s, who make a science of knowing just when a steal is worth the risk. Advanced stats show the Nats are the sixth-best base running team — also a Williams theme. Note for offseason debate: That aggression has produced an extra 4.1 runs. Is it worth the added risk of injury?
The cloud over Williams’s head is a 13-17 record in one-run games. That accounts for a four-win gap between the Nats’ record (64-53) and what might be expected from a team with a plus-85 run differential (68-49) . Is that partly attributable to Williams’s in-game tactics? Too soon to know.
What is clear is the Nats’ improved discipline: Their pitchers have allowed the fewest walks and fewest homers. The team’s sloppy defense of ’13 has become one of the half-dozen most sure-handed in the game.
Except for benching Harper in mid-game for “failing to run 90 feet,” Williams hasn’t had a public blip with any player. And it looks like he may create good lineups from the players he has at hand. Despite losing Zimmerman, Harper and Wilson Ramos for extended periods, the team is still fourth in the NL in runs. And barely behind the Orioles, who lead baseball in homers and get to use a DH.
In baseball, if you win 90 games, you’re a success. Yet you still lose 44 percent of the time. If you long to be miserable, if fretting and fussing suits you, then baseball’s your game. It’s a grind-you-down sport that can bring out the glass-half-empty worldview in anybody — sometimes in players, which is disastrous, and often in fans, which is particularly perverse in Washington.
D.C. hasn’t had a big league team that won a postseason series in the past 90 years. This year it might. So, don’t just see everything that’s wrong with the Nats — why Strasburg gets clobbered at Turner Field or Gonzalez can’t remember to cover first base or how a 21-year-old coming back from midseason thumb surgery might have a slump. Look for balance and don’t forget to enjoy the words “first place.” Or at least that’s how it feels when the balm of vacation still soothes the sporting soul.