SAN FRANCISCO — Hating the things we can’t change never works. Focusing on our strengths as a way to excuse our faults is a trick of human nature that traps us in almost every corner of our experience.
The Washington Nationals, from their fine front office and manager to their talented players, need to start embracing the thing they hate: the five-game playoff series. And they need to stop wrapping themselves in the warm blanket of “regular season wins” when the postseason exposes their nerves.
The five-game series is the polar opposite of the regular season. It is almost a different sport. Even Game 1 is an elimination game because if you lose, you’ve eliminated your margin of error.
The Nationals — close knit, hard-working, likeable, almost without a rockhead in the bunch — must stop resenting the insanely intense version of warped baseball that is played in October. The Nats will never say they feel this way publicly, but many do. That not only has to stop; it must reverse.
Derek Jeter and his Yankees were knocked out of the playoffs in the first round seven times, but all you ever heard from Jeter was how much he loved the pressure because it eliminated psychologically weak foes — in other words, teams such as the Nats, thus far. Tim Hudson had a point; he just said it like a jerk.
Right now, the Nationals are like professional golfers who win a bunch of weekly Tour events but falter under the pressure in major championships. The greatest coaches and athletes recognize their sport’s biggest moments are different — and rise to them.
There’s one huge difference between golf and baseball: In MLB, 25 men have their fate bound together. Even the Hall of Famer isn’t sure to win a ring. So building a team becomes the art and science of finding a critical mass that can both get to October and then devour it, even as it scares ’em half to death.
Looking at 2012 and ’14 combined, Jordan Zimmermann, Doug Fister, Tyler Clippard, Bryce Harper, Anthony Rendon, Ryan Zimmerman and Ian Desmond look adequately suited to the month. That ought to be close to enough and perhaps explains why all three Nats losses to the poised Giants were by one run with no eyesore blowouts like the two losses in ’12 to St. Louis. Gio Gonzalez, Drew Storen and Wilson Ramos haven’t looked comfortable so far. Gio was a mental mess for the third straight time. The jury’s out on Stephen Strasburg, Denard Span and Tanner Roark.
This is the offseason to tweak and retool, not detonate. But it is not an offseason to stand pat or say “nothing is wrong here” or “just give us another year to grow up.”
What the Nats must avoid is the self-pity syndrome of the Oakland A’s, who lost four consecutive division series from 2000 through ’03 despite a superstar pitching rotation the equal of anyone and an MVP slugging shortstop in Miguel Tejada. They used “Moneyball” theories to compensate for low payroll, but their young (cheap) stars made them a powerhouse that averaged 98 wins in those four years. To this day — a week ago Wednesday, actually — the A’s are a team haunted by their first-round-exit blues.
The Nats have no such problem yet. They don’t have a franchise-wide complex like the Washington Capitals, who reached a point where they were so paralyzed by playoff pressure that they took the best record into the Stanley Cup playoffs and lost a seven-game disaster to eighth-seeded Montreal.
But be warned: In another two or three years, the Nats could “Capitalize” themselves.
Manager Matt Williams, who has tightened up several of the team’s lax areas, also has work to do. After losses in Games 2 and 4, Williams explained key decisions by saying, “That’s how we did it all year.”
He went by the book, his book, as if October were June.
Let me steal the words of a fellow baseball writer as we left a Williams news conference: “The last thing I want to hear in October is, ‘That’s how we did it all year.’ How about, ‘We gotta win tonight.’ ”
Game 4 was a perfect illustration because it was identical to Game 4 two years ago against St. Louis: score tied, behind two games to one, all hands on deck and a bullpen that was no more than big league average at covering the vital seventh inning to get to Clippard and Storen.
In ’12, then manager Davey Johnson, with decades of postseason experience, brought in Zimmermann, his best starting pitcher, even though he had never pitched in relief. Zimmermann struck out the side, pumped his fist, lit a fire under his teammates and the Nats forced Game 5.
Williams brought in southpaw Matt Thornton, released late in the season by the New York Yankees, to face two left-handed batters. When the second of them reached base, Williams blundered. With two strong right-handed hitters coming up — Buster Posey and Hunter Pence — a right-handed pitcher, presumably your season life preserver, must be summoned. Williams let Thornton face Posey, who singled.
Already a batter too late, Williams then waved for a right-hander. He could have called for Strasburg — figuring, as Johnson did two years ago, that if we go down, we’ll do so with our best. Williams declared Strasburg available before the game. Or he could have asked Clippard for more outs than just the three in the eighth inning he normally provides. He could even have called for Rafael Soriano, who has plenty of playoff experience to offset his recent struggles. Instead, Williams called for a rookie — a fine rookie, a rookie with a future, but a rookie and a hyper one at that.
The scoreboard might as well have flashed, “Wrong Man, Wrong Spot.” Aaron Barrett walked Pence, then allowed the decisive run to score on a wild pitch. On the next pitch, just trying to issue an intentional walk, Barrett tossed the ball far over his catcher’s head to the backstop. No run scored, but baseball itself had again rendered its eloquent evaluation of a rookie manager’s decision.
Williams will learn. Some day, after he has been reminded 7,000 times that pulling Zimmermann out of Game 2 with one out to go was a mistake, he will start to grasp that finding the right man for the moment depends greatly on the month.
After Game 4, one experienced National said, “They just got one more break than we did.”
No, that’s wrong. The Nats have a problem. Not a huge or insoluble one. But until they admit, then embrace the idea that playoff baseball is a different and crueler sport than the one they play all summer — and a game they have not yet mastered — the Nats will be at a disadvantage in October.
In 51 weeks, they probably will be in much the same high-anxiety situation. The result does not have to be the same.
For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.
Wise: Nats did more than choke