You can’t talk a team’s competitive identity into existence. It has to be created in actions, not words. That seasoning process takes time, and as the Washington Nationals have discovered, it can be measured in years of delayed satisfaction. When a team knows it is good but realizes it is not yet great, the idle hours of spring training are spent talking about how to make that jump. The Nats keep their comments brief, their intentions clear.
“It’s time to grow up. This is the year to graduate,” Jayson Werth said Friday.
“There’s a difference between a good team and a championship team,” reliever Tyler Clippard said. “I came up in a Yankee organization [for five years] that exuded that feeling every year. Now I feel it here. We’re there. We’re ready now.”
The Nats, burned so badly by specific expectations last year, wouldn’t make a prediction this year if you gave them a hot foot with a blowtorch. But the words “intensity, focus and urgency” come up repeatedly.
“That window doesn’t stay open forever,” Werth said. “And when it closes, it doesn’t just close. It slams shut in your face.” He meant Nats but could have said Phillies.
“Last season, we still had a hangover for months,” said Werth, referring to the Nats’ blown 6-0 lead in Game 5 of the 2012 National League Division Series. “We came in and there was plastic everywhere. The last cart of champagne was being pushed out of the clubhouse. It took a while to shake out. Last year it felt like there was a black cloud over us all year.”
“I don’t like to talk about that game,” Clippard said, and he doesn’t, except to note that brutal things happen to young teams as they rise and “we’re older now.”
The Nats’ internal narrative — or perhaps the forgiving fib they tell themselves — is that their nervous, sloppy play for the first 114 games of last season was a kind of post-gut-punch walkabout. Are they over it yet?
“With about seven weeks left, we said, ‘Screw it. We have nothing to lose.’ We’d almost given up on the idea that the 98-win team was who were. When we stopped thinking we were good and decided to go out and prove it, we played like we can,” Werth said of last year’s 32-16 finish. “For me, the second half is our identity.”
That is a convenient interpretation. Outsiders don’t need to buy it. But the Nats would be one strange, defeatist club if they looked at it any other way.
Manager Matt Williams is central to the Nats reworking their identity. It may help that a team that thinks it needs more intensity just got an extreme example of the type.
“I talked to Matt on the phone several times during the winter — one time for four hours,” pitching coach Steve McCatty said. “He said, ‘Anything I’m missing?’ I said, ‘I don’t know about you, but I’m on East Coast time. I’m missing dinner.’ ”
If the current Nats are to make the tough jump from talent to title, it almost certainly will happen on Williams’s watch since General Manager Mike Rizzo is not only patient but committed to Williams’s approach, which the manager calls “implied pressure.” Always make the foe assume an attack is imminent.
How can “attack” be bad? In baseball, it can. A hit-and-run or extra base can turn a close loss into a win. But it can run you out of big innings and lose games because of over-managing. Aggression often has a price in injuries or late-season attrition, too.
A few days ago, Denard Span got a nine-pitch RBI hit off Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer. As Scherzer divided his attention between Span, who might steal, and Ian Desmond, who can hit-and-run, the Tiger hung an 0-2 curve to Desmond for a homer. Cause and effect? Coincidence? Or something more vague but still useful?
“Implied pressure,” Williams said of that 0-2 gopher ball. Good things happen to those who initiate. Or threaten to. That’s the theory, anyway.
The intent of most decisions this spring has been to increase stress on foes even if there is some implied risk to the Nats. Ross Detwiler is in the bullpen where his 95-mph southpaw sinkers may sway middle-inning high-leverage situations in the Nats’ direction, though he may work only 75 innings, not 175 as a starter.
Williams also loves the subtle pressure of defense, whether it is an extreme shift that tempts the hitter to change his approach or using rangy glove men — like middle infielder Danny Espinosa and fast fourth outfielder Nate McLouth — who frustrate teams that already have their hands full trying to score a run off a rotation that starts with Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann and Doug Fister.
Last year the Nats’ defense combined fumbling fingers (24th in fielding percentage) with mediocre “defensive efficiency” at turning balls in play into outs (18th, .691). The choice between Anthony Rendon’s bat and Espinosa’s glove — Ryan Zimmerman says “Danny is one of the few plus-plus infielders in the game” — will be a tip to Williams’s tendencies.
Last year, the Nats’ defining characteristic — until their season was buried — was bad nerves and a general sense that pressure had them, not their opponents, by the throat.
Now every aspect of the Nats’ preparation is geared toward reversing that tone. Will it work? Unknown. But a good team can’t find an identity that helps it reach greatness unless it at least tries one on for size. The Nats are ready for their fitting.
For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.