Nats’ comfortable lead should make their fans uncomfortable
As he strolled through the clubhouse Wednesday, Dusty Baker laughed and showed a funny picture of himself as a player. In the photo, he gave a wide-eyed look as he received a cortisone injection.
“Look at how big that needle is,” the Washington Nationals manager said, grinning. “You think I look nervous?”
Well, let’s just say we haven’t seen such a concerned expression during his season and a quarter as the skipper here.
Before Baker walked away, he was told that a barber would be visiting soon.
“Good, be sure to remind me again,” he said, touching his hair and thinking ahead to his weekend trip to California to attend the high school graduation of his son, Darren. “I need a fresh cut for the trip home.”
For certain, Baker and the Nationals have problems. They worry. They scrutinize the ballclub and sift through shortand long-term options to cover roster holes, especially in the bullpen. But theirs are first-place problems. If they want to see true tension, they should search for more old photos. If they’re wondering about how they look, the standings make for a very flattering mirror. And that’s starting to bug me. The lack of concern is, well, a concern. The absence of daily, inyour-face pressure — the absence of a National League East Division contender to push the Nationals, to scare them, to keep them honest — is a problem. It does the nerves good, but there’s great value in the struggle of a fiercely competitive season. While 162 games always provide a level of difficulty and test the limits of even well-constructed teams, the Nationals would benefit from having a more perilous route to the postseason.
The words are cliched but true: Baseball is a game of failure.
It isn’t as catchy, but it might
be more appropriate to consider baseball a game of discomfort. That encapsulates the physical grind and the mental fatigue. There’s always something to fight through, to win in spite of, and the more a team is forced to manage, overcome or outlast discomfort, the stronger it will be in tense playoff situations.
That’s where the Nationals — despite how blessed they must feel to have a huge division lead and the freedom to solve their bullpen problem in a methodical manner — are desperate for a consistent rival. That is supposed to be the New York Mets, who smoked Washington in the second half of the 2015 season, won the division and advanced to the World Series. The Mets came back last season and made the playoffs as a wild card. But there has yet to be a to-the-wire race between these teams.
New York won the division by seven games in 2015. The Nationals won by eight games in 2016. And this year, the Mets are under .500, struggling with injuries and reeling. Their tripleace pitching monster of Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard and Matt Harvey now looks more likely to be a fleeting success story than a lasting force.
The Nationals entered a weekend home series against San Diego on pace to win 99 games. Unless something changes, they very well could win the division by 15 to 18 games. And that’s a level of comfort that should make you uncomfortable.
Is this worrying just to worry? Perhaps. What about appreciating the Nats’ ability to sustain success? Good point. The culture of American team sports is absurdly obsessed with postseason tournaments. It’s puzzling and simple-minded, this inability to compartmentalize and appreciate regular season steadiness separate from postseason mettle. It’s especially disappointing in baseball, where excellence while playing 162 times in six months should be celebrated as much as getting hot in October.
But for all the good work that General Manager Mike Rizzo has done to create a franchise that can enjoy those six months with regularity and throw darts at the World Series for years to come, the Nationals haven’t won a playoff series in three tries. They will be labeled a disappointment until they advance a round, at minimum. That’s where the need for constant pressure comes into play. It creates urgency, which extends from the field to the front office.
The regular season is mostly about stability. For the most part, if a roster and an organization aren’t solid, they will have trouble handling the challenges and attrition of the long year. The Nationals have all but mastered stability, which is why they rebound quickly from setbacks and correct mistakes rather easily. But the postseason is about tension and survival, and the Nationals — three variations of them — haven’t handled those things well.
Making the postseason in consecutive seasons, which Washington should do this time, would help. But ease is the Nationals’ greatest opponent.
This is how their three division titles have been won: In 2012, they didn’t fall out of first place after May 22 and won the division by four games. In 2014, they surged later in the season; they didn’t fall out of first place after July 21 and won the division by 17 games. In 2016, the last game they played without the division lead was May 11, and they beat the field by eight games.
In 2015, when the Mets won the East, the Nationals fought through injuries and stayed in first place until August. But when the Mets swept them to start that month and then took the division lead Aug. 3, the Nationals never reclaimed first place. In fact, the Mets swept them again in September when there was still hope for Washington. The second half of that year was a Jonathan Papelbon-plagued mess, and the job was too big for then-manager Matt Williams, and that was a slightly different team with several core members about to exit in free agency. Still, the 2015 second half can be entered into evidence that the Nationals are squeamish about pressure.
How do you conquer the flaw? Keep building, which Rizzo has done. And play through it, which the Nationals are doing. But without a foe that can run alongside them, they’ll be able to get away with a lot. Even when they struggle against other championship contenders, they can play .600 baseball simply by whipping the East and the cellar dwellers from other divisions. It creates the worst thing for a team that aims to make a deep postseason run: a false sense of security.
You attempt to take the temperature of the Nationals after a recent stretch of four losses in a row and eight of 12, and, well, it registers as normal now. A homestand against the Seattle Mariners and San Diego will do that.
Of course, the Nationals aren’t to blame. They can’t control which teams are good and bad. It’s unfortunate that they don’t have such powers. Surely, they’d want tougher opposition.
Instead, they train to handle postseason pressure by wandering through six months of limited pressure. With little discomfort, it’s questionable preparation.
For more by Jerry Brewer, visit washingtonpost.com/brewer.