Correction: A previous version of this column incorrectly reported that the Washington Nationals blew a three-run, ninth-inning lead to the St. Louis Cardinals in the Game 5 of 2012 National League Division Series between the two teams. The Nationals actually blew a two-run lead in the ninth inning.
VIERA, Fla. — You can’t schedule opportunity. In baseball, smart planning, dumb good luck and maturing stars arrive on their own schedule. Mystery ingredients sometimes arrive as well, often in unexpected, almost paradoxical forms.
That’s where the Washington Nationals find themselves as they arrive at training camp. They have the blossoming talent, as well as the offseason acquisitions to be one of the sport’s four preseason World Series favorites, bunched with the Blue Jays, Angels and Dodgers.
But they also have the confluence of two other powerful motivational factors that can supercharge their season if things work out well, or seem twice as demoralizing if they don’t. They arrive here after one of the worst season-ending losses ever; and their respected, popular manager, Davey Johnson, 70, is retiring. If momentum builds during the season, atonement for the Nats and the fondest possible farewell for Johnson will drive them. If things go south, Oct. 12, 2012, looms larger and hell, Davey is leaving, too.
“Eyes on the prize,” shortstop Ian Desmond said Saturday. “Davey says, ‘World Series or bust.’ I’m all-in with that.”
“Has there ever been a team that’s this complete on paper?” said Jayson Werth, exaggerating, but emphasizing the last word. “We’re really good. We’ve got six months to prove it and one month to bring it home. Time will tell.”
If the Nats overcompensate a bit in their shows of confidence, it is both a team-wide commitment to “Natitude” and a coping mechanism for misery.
You seldom prosper in the future unless you have understood the past. A bitter memory still stood in front of the Nats as they arrived in spring this week. Their 9-7 loss to St. Louis, blowing a two-run ninth-inning lead, couldn’t be more vivid if it were replayed endlessly on their clubhouse TV.
Four months of digestion has only left the Nats hungrier.
“All winter I thought about the last game and how close we really were,” said Jordan Zimmermann, leaving unsaid the obvious words “to the World Series.” “I’ve never seen anything like that before. Everybody [in Nationals Park] was going absolutely crazy. And then you could hear a pin drop.
“It will definitely motivate us for this year.”
The question for this Washington season is whether that blown six-run lead in Game 5 of their NL Division Series, the worst such deciding-game squander ever, will demoralize and haunt them or rededicate them to an incandescent and driven season.
“I’ll never be over it. That may drive me till I die,” said Werth, who arrived in camp on Saturday. “. . . But in the offseason you wake up in the morning and you’re pissed off enough to go hit the weights. This reminds me of spring training in ’08 with the Phils. We were fresh off a first-round bounce [out of the playoffs] by the Rockies. They were hot and swept us. We thought we were good enough to go all the way and we didn’t.
“The next year we were hungry and we won it all.”
Tyler Clippard, who fanned the side in the eighth inning of a Game 4 win and gave up a solo homer in Game 5, kept replaying those division series games more than the whole 98-win regular season. “That playoff series was the most fun in my life — nervous but confident,” he said.
“Then it all ended up in disbelief, sadness. We were in shock. We did not expect to lose. Then you think back on it in the offseason. Our learning curve was super fast. We’re good. But winning a world championship takes years. You have to learn how to win and you can only do it through experience. It’s like learning your craft in the minors to reach the majors.”
What’s the takeaway for this season? “Motivation,” answered Clippard, “and a whole lot of excitement.”
Since they are such a young and still rapidly improving team, the assumption within the sport is that such powerful disappointment will generate a furnace of desire. The Nats are now 4-to-1 in some books to win the NL pennant, behind only the Dodgers in chilly Las Vegas hearts at 7-to-2.
“You guys are 8-to-1 to win the Series,” I mentioned to Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen this week. “That means you have about the same chance as [weak-hitting ex-Nat] John Lannan does of getting a base hit.”
After they picked up their jaws, Clippard chirped, “John can swing it.” Storen added, grinning, “I have all the confidence in John’s hitting.”
Right now, you can’t deflate the Nats, not even with the truth. No matter how good they may be in regular season, they still must survive postseason, when small data samples produce exciting flukes.
“Baseball is not like [pro] basketball. The best teams don’t always win in the playoffs. It’s who’s playing best and who gets hot,” Danny Espinosa said. “You don’t just ‘throw for 400 yards.’ You can face a pitcher and he might have the best stuff of his life that day and you may not touch him.”
The Nats may not want to admit it, but in a sport where fragile confidence is so vital, they may have the game’s best confidence-building manager (for the last time) in Johnson. As a player, he was on Orioles teams that won 108 and 109 games. As a manager, his Mets won 108 and 100. This is not a man — at various times a pilot, cowboy, mathematician, scuba instructor, scratch golfer and 43-home-run hitter — who suffers from altitude sickness. He likes the air as rarified as he can get it. Davey even enjoyed his recent septuagenarian safari. “I like Africa,” he said. “I didn’t get eaten.”
Johnson’s “World Series or bust” proclamation may mean less that it seems; as Werth says, “What the hell else would your goal be?”
But for these Nats, that bravado, especially after last year’s deflating ending, is probably the proper tone-setter.
“If you don’t think you’re going to win, you’ve got no chance,” Johnson said. “I’m going to take the heat if we don’t play well. And they can have all the trophies when they do play well. I have high expectations and I know everybody in that room does. Nothing wrong with that.
“It’s a great feeling.”
And coming soon.
For previous columns by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/