For the past two seasons, almost every injury the Washington Nationals have had — from the originally minor lat strain that cost Michael Morse the first 50 games of last season, to the dark comedy of errors that now has Bryce Harper on the disabled list — has been more serious than predicted.
Even when the Nats have an injury diagnosed correctly, the player talks his way into coming back into the lineup too soon or Manager Davey Johnson gives mixed signals, advising a player to take “the extra day” to prove he’s healthy when hindsight says an extra week was needed.
Jayson Werth had a minor hamstring pull May 2. He kept pushing to return — always too soon. He’s still not quite back. Harper made three premature returns to the lineup with the net result that he turned a set of bruises — courtesy of the Dodgers’ scoreboard — into a full month of missed games, sub-.200 slumping and, perhaps, bursitis pain in his knee all season.
Catcher Wilson Ramos came back from a pulled hamstring, but re-injured it by being too gung-ho stretching for a double. He might miss two months in total before he’s back. Southpaw Ross Detwiler is currently on the disabled list with an injury similar to Strasburg’s. He, too, is pushing to get back as soon as possible, even though the Nats have 105 games to be played.
Perhaps saddest, Danny Espinosa has played all season with a rotator cuff tear that needs surgery much the way Adam LaRoche needed a procedure on a torn labrum and missed most of the 2011 season. Espinosa has played the past six weeks with a broken wrist that was not detected in the original tests. Is he on the 60-day DL now? Or having surgery so he can come back fresh next season? No, he took six days off and is back again, despite being The Worst Hitter in Baseball. The Nats have decent second basemen coming out their ears. Let Espinosa heal.
Nothing in baseball is trickier than figuring out how to handle small day-to-day injuries that can quickly turn into four- to six-week trips to the DL. After 38 seasons of covering baseball, I don’t think anybody is much good at it. But you can spot patterns and problems. Whether consciously or not, the Nats have developed an ultra-macho team culture of playing with “minor” injuries. While the Nats are conservative in recovery protocols after major surgeries, they seem to be just the opposite in dealing with “dings.”
It’s not working. And it’s contributing to killing their 28-29 season.
Few fans grasp the game’s idea of pain tolerance. What’s considered the minimum necessary big-league toughness would seem cruel and inhuman to normal people. To understand the Nats’ internal team code, it may be useful to realize that Werth began as an Orioles minor league catcher who idolized Cal Ripken. Johnson was a central figure in the ask-no-quarter high-spikes days of Frank Robinson in Baltimore. Nats joke about how many bones Johnson says he had exposed after various injuries. If there’s something reckless Davey didn’t do, it’s just because he overlooked it. His idea of a golf story is how to kill a poisonous snake in mid-strike with a 2-iron. “Done it twice,” he says.
Harper already had that George Brett-Pete Rose mind-set when he arrived: Wall, what wall? General Manager Mike Rizzo, who’s all-in with that attitude, traded for Kurt Suzuki, one of the game’s notable pain-eating catchers. Espinosa played for months with gruesome injuries, like a thumb that bent in the wrong direction much of last season. Ryan Zimmerman joined the cast last year, playing the last 100 games with several cortisone shots in his throwing shoulder. Doctors said he wasn’t risking career damage. Yeah, if you say so.
Once, I saw Cal Ripken flip 240-pound Albert Belle over his shoulder onto a locker room sofa, then leap on top of him like kid brothers brawling, just fun roughhousing. Cal, B.J. Surhoff and coach John Stearns, if they caught each other unaware, would punch the guy as hard as he could in the chest or shoulder. A “gotcha” with no retaliation allowed. They never flinched. The punches sounded like gunshots. Their manager? Davey.
Recently, Werth laughed about that punch ritual with admiration. Johnson still tells the story of Earl Weaver, managing at Elmira, putting him in the lineup the day after a horrid beaning with his face black-and-blue and cotton still stuffed in his broken nose and blurred vision. Get back on that horse. For months, “I’d be walking down a street, see a ball coming at my head and duck,” Johnson said. “I’d say [to the other players], ‘Didn’t you guys see that thing? It was comin’ right at me.’” More laughter.
This is not aberrant behavior. It is just baseball, pro hardball version. It’s not “pastoral.” Quite a bit of hell-bent is essential. But too much is a disaster.
How do you draw the line? Shouldn’t it be different for every player? Watching someone who is attuned to every nerve in his body, like Jim Palmer, on the same team as a human bruise like Ripken, is like observing Strasburg with Harper: different species at the same watering hole. They both belong there. But each has to learn his own way to survive and thrive.
The Nats, as they rise in the sport, are learning many things. And so are those who supervise them.
On Thursday, Rizzo and I stood by the batting cage and talked about care of injuries. Rizzo emphasized that treatment of day-to-day injuries, such as Harper’s, are entirely different than major procedures, with six- to 18-month rehabilitation periods, such as Tommy John or labrum surgery. The problem, Rizzo said, was that Harper has to learn how to play smarter when banged up. His two headfirst slides last Sunday were both on poor-judgment, unnecessary plays.
“It is just youth,” Rizzo said. “He’ll learn. They all do.”
That sounded sensible to me. But sometimes the moral of the story, and the measure of your own stupidity, is standing in front of you. As we talked, Harper was taking batting practice, trying to hit the Camden Yards warehouse, after doing some light running in the outfield. Cool, what a stud.
By the time the Nats plane landed in Atlanta that night, Harper was limping and, by Saturday, he was — finally, mercifully — on the DL.
This is all part of the Nats’ learning curve, each player absorbing his own often-painful lessons. Johnson and Rizzo always say they “err on the side of caution.” But the results, the thing you’re judged by, haven’t been agreeing.
At the moment, the Nats would look at the Kon Tiki and say, “That raft looks pretty safe for ocean travel, right?” They may need to think again.
For previous columns by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.