Going Negative in Washington
The Washington Nationals followed a bad weekend of baseball in Philadelphia with an even worse evening in Miami. Stephen Strasburg was supposed to right the ship for Washington against Chris Volstad. Comparing the numbers for the two pitchers any betting parlor would have given steep odds on Volstad’s chance of winning, but he out-pitched Strasburg and as the 9-0 score indicated it was not even close.
Between innings in the coming months, baseball fans watching at home will be subjected to the vitriol spewing forth from the political campaigns as each candidate calls into question the ancestry and patriotism of their fellows. Washington, DC is used to that sort of thing, but not from their revered ball club. “Tell me it isn’t so?” The Nationals have not collapsed into that sort of quarrelsome heap have they?
The negative vibe surfaced in the Nationals locker room as Washington GM Mike Rizzo questioned Davey Johnson’s leadership after the messy affair in Philly. “You come down and manage then,” was part of the heated exchange between the two men heard from the manager’s office. The two men fumed about nonchalant play like Jesus Flores’ passed ball that set up a three run inning. The two men shrugged it off and were all smiles within scant minutes, but neither man could have been particularly sanguine about what they saw in Miami two days after their tête-a-tête in Philly.
Stephen Strasburg refused to throw to first base to hold runners and even Carlos Lee took advantage by swiping second base. Yes, that Carlos Lee, the one that carries the yellow “oversized load” signs fluttering from all sides on his way to first base. Strasburg fell in love with his fast ball and so did the Miami hitters as they pounded him for nine hits and seven runs over five dreadful innings.
There was no joy in Mudville after the fifth loss in a row for the Nationals. But it is the way the games have been played more than the outcome. Washington has scored a scant six runs in their five losses. Bryce Harper broke in on a ball that sailed over his head for a double to score two runs on Sunday after Flores allowed the runners to move up on his passed ball. Normally sure-handed Danny Espinosa muffed a double play ball behind Strasburg that opened the flood gates in the third inning.
The question for Davey Johnson is how to right a ship of young players who have never been in a pennant race before. They are feeling the eyes of the world upon them for the first time. After playing in relative obscurity in a city that has not had a winner in almost eight decades, suddenly they are the talk of the game. Should he or shouldn’t he? The questions may have finally gotten to Strasburg last night and his outing may have been a 24-year old’s fit of pique.
Which is where Davey Johnson needs to emerge as the cool head. Blowing off steam with Mike Rizzo may be misplaced. The two men need to question the desire and focus of their players rather than one another.
Last season the Philadelphia Phillies and the Atlanta Braves were in much the same position as the Nationals and Braves this season. Atlanta had the Wild Card slot sowed up as they entered September, but a dismal month and a one-game playoff gave the berth to the St. Louis Cardinals who thanked the Braves by winning the World Series.
Now, with the same team Atlanta is back and playing well. Kris Medlen has been the Braves stopper and he beat the San Diego Padres last night 2-0 to pull Atlanta within four games of the first-place Nationals. The pressure is not going to go away on the young Washington pitching staff. Ross Detwiler, the 26-year old in his first season in the Nationals rotation, gets the start tonight. Then Washington returns from its short road trip to Philly and Miami to face the Cardinals for a four-game weekend series against a veteran team that is trying to defend its crown against the upstart. It does not get easier for Davey and his charges.
I got an email from a writer and friend who asked whether Davey Johnson would be back next season. Would that the rest of the questions facing Nationals GM Mike Rizzo and principal owner Mark Lerner were that easy. Davey will be back as will almost all of the Nationals currently on the active roster.
Like the Braves last year after their very disappointing finish, the Nationals will not despair and abandon the program. They are built for the long term. This is not a Hollywood franchise that will try to cut and paste the most expensive stars they can find on the open market into a smooth functioning team. For one thing, it seldom works.
The Nationals have slowly built the best pitching staff in the game and have an offense that has at times shown signs of coming together as well. Can they stand the pressure? Only time will tell. There is still plenty of time for Adam LaRoche and Jayson Werth to show the younger players how it is done. Nothing breeds success like success and if the Nationals can find the winner’s circle again in the next few days, they may prove their own source of inspiration.
Whatever happens, the team will learn and profit from the next month of pennant fever. The debate over Strasburg was ratcheted up by no less than John Fienstein who on Monday wrote the most unfortunate of columns in the Washington Post calling it a “betrayal” not to pitch Strasburg during the final weeks of September.
The only betrayal is Feinstein’s who clearly should stick to golf since he cannot grasp the larger betrayal to Strasburg of putting his career in jeopardy for one September run when a single player cannot guarantee success–as was seen last night. Yet it is that kind of irresponsibility that creates the negative atmosphere of the pennant race. Perhaps Feinstein’s true calling is writing campaign ads for Ron Paul.
Mike Rizzo and Davey Johnson are baseball men, not politicians. They will find their way forward this season and for those to come. The old blues epithet, “been down so long,” comes to mind. Whatever happens in the coming month Washington is fortunate to have two gifted baseball men aboard for the ride. The longer term perspective for 2012 can only be positive. There is so much to win from this season, and almost nothing to lose.