On Monday and Tuesday, the Atlanta Braves demonstrated to the Washington Nationals why they are now 151 / 2 games ahead in the National League East and will not be overtaken this season. Those two games were an execution by proper execution.
The Nats have had many problems this year. Their bench, strong last season, has been horrible, with six key players combining for an abysmal .521 on-base-plus-slugging percentage through Tuesday night in more than 1,000 trips to the plate. Their fifth starter was a disaster for 100 games. Their second baseman’s career imploded. General Manager Mike Rizzo’s biggest team-tweaking decision, trading for Denard Span, proved misconceived, subtracting offense from a team that has plummeted in scoring. Manager Davey Johnson, who spiked the team’s confidence a year ago, has looked as at a loss as Joe Gibbs II. His lame-duck status was underlined when Rizzo fired his hitting coach against his wishes.
Several of the Nats’ best hitters, including Bryce Harper, Jayson Werth and Ian Desmond, are having good seasons, when healthy, by most stats — but, on the entire roster, only Wilson Ramos has really strong RBI totals.
But another huge Nats problem, and the one that absolutely must be solved before anything really good can happen, is that they play the game badly at the fundamental level night after infuriating night. The Nats think, correctly, that they are talented. But bad baseball always beats talent. The Nats aren’t winning because the way they’ve played, they don’t merit it.
And nobody calls them out, instance by instance, game by game. Certainly not Johnson, a “players’ manager” whose trust has been abused by his veterans, nor his coaches nor even Rizzo. Because the Nats usually played crisply last season, the franchise finds it unfathomable that they’ve regressed so far so fast. When will the “switch flip” or the “light go on” and the poise, presence of mind and pleasure reappear? Surely this is a bad dream.
But, after 114 games, somebody should say, “This doesn’t cut it.”
The Nats can’t sacrifice bunt or execute basic situational hitting. On Tuesday, they lost, 2-1, because Gio Gonzalez popped up a sacrifice bunt attempt, costing the Nats a run, while the Braves’ 23-year-old Julio Teheran, in the same inning, advanced two runners with a bunt, both of whom scored on a two-out single. Gonzalez, a vet, didn’t need to offer at a first-pitch fastball, up-and-in. But at some level, he simply wasn’t ready to perform. He flinched, stuck his bat up reflexively, made a one-pitch gift out then acted angry at his failure as he marched back to the dugout. Memo: Spend less time trying to hit batting-practice homers and bunt a heck of a lot more.
In the most important at-bat of the game, with the bases loaded and two outs in the seventh, overanxious Adam LaRoche dribbled out to first base on a 2-0 fastball that was six inches inside and would have been ball three. That’s the Nats: neglecting what’s easy or trying too hard at what’s difficult.
On Monday, the Nats lost, 3-2, because Stephen Strasburg, who had fabulous stuff that night, allowed an uncontested steal of second that turned into a two-out run. Strasburg still can’t hold runners, refuses to divide his focus and has yet to trap a single runner who has “timed his move” by simply stepping off the rubber. If Storen had stepped off at the right moment in Game 5 last fall against the Cardinals, he would have nailed Yadier Molina by 40 feet and the Nats would have played in the NL Championship Series.
The Nats really are very talented. They have been told this over and over, many from childhood, and they believe it. What they aren’t told often enough is that they have huge gaps in their games that should embarrass a pro. Harper is not just “disappointing” but downright paltry against left-handed pitching. If his name were Joe Blow, he might be benched against tough southpaws. His career right-left OPS splits are .926/.668 with a .221 batting average against lefties. It’s getting worse: 1.033/.559 this year. He should be working on his craft before bad habits become ingrained. Maybe some of those commercials or styling in home run derbies can wait.
It’s time for Zimmerman to find out where his arm strength stands and stop playing shallow, thus minimizing his range, then throwing quick-release lobs to first base with the arc of a junior high game. Avoiding the issue does not help the Nats figure out their future at first, second or third base. He can gun it adequately before the game. So suck it up and let it go in the game.
Two things need to stop. The Nats should never again talk about “our talent” or how they can’t possibly “keep playing so badly.” Their results this season exactly reflect the level of their play, just as they did in 98-win 2012. And Johnson, if he intends to finish the season, can’t keep saying he’s out of ideas and give the impression he’s almost quit. That’s too much candor.
The Nats aren’t going to catch the Braves, who’ve earned their NL East title. But the Nats are “just” nine games behind the Cincinnati Reds for the last wild-card spot after Wednesday night’s 6-3 loss completed a sweep by Atlanta. The Reds have gone 20-23 in the last quarter of their season and are just 63-51. They have their problems, too, and a much tougher schedule than the Nats. Washington probably won’t catch Cincinnati. But it’s their well-paid job to try.
If you pack it in because you think the only choices are “World Series” or “bust,” you’ve fallen for a false dichotomy. Baseball isn’t about grand goals. It’s just about playing every day as properly as you can, as close to that elusive blend of “relaxed, but concentrated” as you’re able. If you don’t, the price is high. Once a team shows any dog in its collective character, it’s hard to eradicate that canine component the following season.
The Nats really are a talented, hard-working team with a good clubhouse and decent people. But they’ve been rattled, pressing, joyless and awful at fundamentals since April. They should reduce their season to a manageable goal: Play smart, focused baseball as a group, work to improve individually and have a reasonably loose and enjoyable time while you’re doing it. That actually can be done. The rest always takes care of itself.
For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.
Box score: Braves 6, Nationals 3