VIERA, Fla. — (Editor: Let’s hold the Nationals obituary column for later this week. Will find another subject for Monday paper. Boz.)
Oh, sorry. Got to keep those internal memos more confidential.
After the Nationals went 0-10-1 in their previous 11 games, Manager Davey Johnson went to several of his everyday players, who’d been leaving games after three at-bats and seldom going to road games at all, and said, “You’ll be playing a little more . . . Jayson Werth, you’ve got nine [innings].”
“It’s about time,” said Werth.
So, with Michael Morse and Adam LaRoche, the fourth and fifth hitters, still out of the lineup with nagging injuries, the Nats sent a semblance of their best available lineup to the field against a scruffy Mets road team Sunday. “I think we’re about ready to go to the whip,” Johnson said to reporters.
Leadoff man Ian Desmond homered.Danny Espinosa and Ryan Zimmerman followed with back-to-back doubles off the right field wall. Then cleanup man Werth hit probably the longest homer to left in the eight years the Nats have trained here, over three sequential layers of signage (Turtle Creek Golf, World of Beers and Climactic), into a heretofore unnoticed grove of trees in front of a players parking lot. Before the first inning ended, Roger Bernadina homered, the Nats had five runs, 18 total bases and even Stephen Strasburg, who pitched five scoreless innings in the 12-0 win, had cracked a hit.
A team in need of a boost, and one that actually does have a bunch of worrisome issues with opening day coming just 11 days after Sunday’s game, not only had a win it wanted but added a tad of the team-bonding tale telling.
“Did you get that one?” Werth was asked.
“Off the toe a little,” he said over his shoulder. “I hit my truck.”
Werth hit his own truck in the parking lot with the longest ball here in years? Come on. “I thought it landed in the lake out there,” Johnson said.
And what is the source of this Bunyanesque anecdote? “Desmond found out from the ultra-reliable grounds crew guy,” said Zimmerman, deadpan. “I don’t know if he’ll be able to afford to fix it.”
“Right now, it’s more of a rumor, folklore,” said Werth at his locker stall, getting ready to go inspect the damage to his mythological pickup. “I think they are messing with me. But if it is dented or smashed, cracked or shattered,” said Werth, relishing the last word, “I kind of foresee it staying that way for a while.”
Probably all season. If Werth’s window is not shattered, either by his homer or by a reliever hustling out and humming a two-seamer through an appropriate window, then the Nats lack vital playoff-contending experience. Because, on a real ballclub, the story is spread and that car gets drilled.
Baseball is different, just totally different. This kind of foolishness seldom exists in other team sports; some are more violent, or perhaps, have thousands less hours to kill in a season that lasts 194 games, minimum. Everything is part of the unfolding team and individual narrative. That 0-10-1, as well as the Nats’ lousy 6-13-3 record now, is “meaningless”; but it meant enough for Johnson to call his regulars together to chat.
“I think the skipper wanted to win today. We had a little extra giddy-up,” Werth said. “We got [him] off the schneid.”
You take the material at hand, the ambiguous reality of things, and spin it the way that helps, weave it into a tentative pattern that seems plausible, yet also reinforces the group. Then, for months, you repeat that task, over and over, as often as needed, to the point of absurdity, until you achieve something fine or else say, “Too bad. We’ll get ’em next year.”
This is next year. And until this balmy blue afternoon, March had been one string of headaches. Actually, strained lats and hamstrings, bruised feet and elbow inflammations to Michael Morse, Chien-Ming Wang, Adam LaRoche and Drew Storen, all of whom will probably miss the first week of the season, except tape-it-up-and-go LaRoche. A month from now, all will likely be fine, but until them, it’s chaotic.
“I’ve never seen anything like it. No killer injuries, fortunately. But this late in spring training we’re talking about ‘Who’s going to play’ left field, first base, center field, closer and a [fifth] starter,” Johnson said.
Right now, the manager will platoon LaRoche at first base with Mark DeRosa early in the season to ease LaRoche’s return from shoulder surgery as well as his current sore foot. “Aw, I don’t want that,” LaRoche told him. “Well, it’s out of your hands,” Johnson said.
The Nats may also be forced to start the year with platoons of Bernadina and Jason Michaels in left, Rick Ankiel and Brett Carroll in center and a closer-by committee of Brad Lidge and Henry Rodriguez. The alternative: risk serious re-injury to Morse, Storen or Wang. “On opening day, your numbers get reset,” said Werth, “but your health doesn’t.”
As for the heart of the team, the starting rotation of Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann, Edwin Jackson and John Lannan has allowed 97 hits, 53 runs, 10 homers and 29 walks in 751 / 3 innings. So, they’re getting hit often and far, but their control is bad, too.
Partly, this is old-school Johnson who says, “I’m not giving ’em any help. They’re going to throw 80 pitches. . . . You’ve got to get your work in, period, end of conversation.” If it’s not your day, you get crushed. So, Jackson gave up 10 runs in a start and Gonzalez eight, inflating their stats. “Our starters have gotten beat up more than they like or I like,” Johnson said.
Strasburg’s been the best, but not brilliant. His arm is sound, but his command of all his pitches — his key to dominance — has been sharp one inning, erratic the next. His elbow is strong enough that the pre-surgery sharpness on his breaking pitches is back. But Strasburg is still a young pitcher: With a 10-run lead against a weak lineup he didn’t breeze.
None of it matters. But none of it is good. In March, both can be true.
That’s why you have a pregame chat with vets. “That’s more like it,” Johnson said. “To a man, we were tired of getting whooped up on big time.”
If things work right — a homer, double, double, tape-measure homer start — then, for a day at least, you get to rewrite the narrative. “We have something to prove,” said Desmond, “but we don’t need to prove it now.”
Maybe not, but soon, very soon.
For Thomas Boswell’s previous columns go to washingtonpost.