Nats’ com­fort­able lead should make their fans un­com­fort­able

The Washington Post Sunday - - SPORTS - Jerry Brewer

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.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.