August 4, 2021

Bell Jar Baseball

October 7, 2017 by · 2 Comments 

Watching the Washington Nationals in the playoffs is like reading Sylvia Plath’s Bell Jar. You root for the protagonist as she descends further into depression, but there is no escape, no uplift that takes you away from the slow descent, only further slipping into a bottomless pit. Washington fans deserve better than classic levels of depression. They stay till the end; they never flag in their affections; and they believe until the last pitch is thrown that something will change, that their beloved Nationals will rally. Sylvia would have recognized the signs.

There is no easy explanation. The team has been to the post-season four times now and so it is not as if they are attending their first dance. They have players in Daniel Murphy and Jayson Werth who have experienced considerable success in October baseball. Werth is the author of the lone heroic moment for Nationals fans when he hit a walk-off home run against the Cardinals in Game Four of the NLDS in 2012. I remember the bar I was in and the people I was celebrating with after that game like it was Kennedy’s assassination or 9-11.

Not fitting metaphors you argue. I beg to differ. Other than that singular experience, the Nationals have won only one other single playoff game at home. They terrorize their fans, they assault them with heart-wringing depressive waves of loss upon loss, upon loss. And the games are interminable affairs of wanting them to score that telltale home run, or double into the gap. Waiting for the bullpen to mow down the opposing batters inning after inning. Alas, such hopes are for others. Like Sylvia, Washington fans know only heart break.

Washington has played fifteen games in four playoff series. They have had home field advantage every year. It seems to be their undoing. Playing in front of the home crowd the team seizes up like an old crank shaft that has not been oiled in a very long time, but is trying to run at full speed.

Last night may have been their best performance to date. Stephen Strasburg had a no-hitter going into the sixth inning. He has been dominant in the second half of the 2017 season and he had the same stuff last night. Perhaps he wanted it too bad. He was pumping 98 mph fastballs past Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo and had eight strikeouts in those five innings. It was masterful to watch and the fans stood screaming for every two strike count like it was 2010 all over again, like he was that once-in-a-lifetime rookie throwing 100 mph and no one could lay a glove on him. He was that guy again. For five innings he delivered every time he got to two strikes and the place went nuts when he did.

But there was that nagging feeling like something was wrong. The Cubs were not the only team with goose eggs on the board. It was knotted 0-0 going into the top of the sixth inning. When Stras took the mound for that frame, the fastball was topping out at 95/96. All those fastballs had taken their toll. Bryant and Rizzo had two-out hits to plate two unearned runs after Anthony Rendon made an error to start the inning. Yes, Rendon made an error. It has gotten that bad. He made seven across 145 games during the regular season and is one of the best defenders in baseball bar none. Yet he could not get through a single playoff game without an miscue. It was a key error, but it did not cost the ball game. The team lost the game, not any single player bares the honor, nor even a manager. It is a shared responsibility, save perhaps Strasburg. He gave up only a pair of runs–neither earned–across seven innings. He struck out 10.

Kyle Hendricks is a fine pitcher and he deserved the win against Washington in Game One. Make no mistake about that. But the Nationals did not show up to play. When they made hard contact it died early like Murphy’s line drive to Rizzo in the first inning with Bryce Harper on second base, or Rendon’s long fly ball to center in the third. But the hard contact was rare. It is easy to score 15 runs in April, another thing altogether in October.

In 2016 the Nationals clobbered the Dodgers in Game Three. They scored eight runs on nine hits and six walks against Kenta Maeda and the Dodger bullpen. They were in the Catbird seat. Washington was up by a game after winning Game Two in DC. That’s right. They won in DC, the only other win at Nationals Park. Jose Lobaton had a 3-run homer to put the Nationals out front in the fifth inning and they coasted home. Jose Lobaton!? The hero was not Harper, Zimmerman, or Rendon. None of the big names that are getting paid the big money. Jose Lobaton was the best thing going, the one who pushed them over the finish line.

And from there they could not deliver. They could not win in LA and when they came home to DC, they had Max Scherzer against Rich Hill and somehow found a way to lose it. The offense scored a single run off Rich Hill, but led after six innings by a score of 1-0.

So reminiscent of last night. A great pitching performance by one of the great arms in the modern game. Forty-four thousand fans waving red rally flags all night, but in their heart of hearts, they were waiting for the shoe to drop. No worries, the Dodgers scored four in the seventh off when it took five Washington relievers to get out of the inning. Four to one, then a final of 4-3.

Last night was the worst. The Nationals went out with a whimper and barely that. Two hits all night. It is easy to score 15 runs in April, another thing altogether in October. Washington fans deserve better. They deserve better than having Matt Williams and Dusty Baker take the fall for what are failures by the players. The second guessers will be out in force again this fall. If only Dusty had done that. If only Bob Henley had sent the runner. And on, and on, and on.

It is the players making the big money and they are the ones the fans are cheering. Sure, everybody loves Dusty, but he cannot suit up and play alongside Hank Aaron any longer. That is what it will take to create a winning tradition in Washington. Where is our Hammerin’ Hank? Sure, we have Bryce Harper and Ryan Zimmerman, but look at their stat sheets and you begin to see the problem. Harper’s MVP season was 2015. He has been hurt as much as healthy. Same for Zimmerman. And when the chips are in the middle of the table and the fans are yelling for them to show why they love them so…

Poor Sylvia. So talented, so much potential and yet stuck inside a bell jar unable to get out. She would be a Nationals fan. She would be perfect.



2 Responses to “Bell Jar Baseball”
  1. Jim Oliver says:

    Had a beautiful sunny Veterans Day in NC with my 26 year-old daughter Chloe, and my 19 year-old stepdaughter, Tess. Went to a farm auction at a farm that had been in the same family for 200 years. Barns full of leather and iron odds and ends, most unidentifiable inside the buildings’ darkness. The auctioneers were compelling and funny. Even though the 63 acre farm coulda been bought for $640,000 last week, it sold for $1,150,000 at auction. On the way back from getting a pickup truck to haul off busted and rusty plows, bull horns, and odd tools and china, we found a sweet little dawg running down a paved busy country road. We stopped, I opened the door and called him. He jumped in, wagging his tail, but naturally cautious. He was bleeding, not badly, but scraped. We took him back to the auction, loaded up the truck, and took the stuff back to Chloe’s old farm house. Afterward, Tess and I drove down all the gravel roads with mailboxes, asking folks about the dawg. Long quiet dirt roads through lovely autumn colors under a cloudless blue Carolina sky. Yes, we (and Kirby) lucked out! We found his home, to the joy of Kirby and a 15 year-old owner.

  2. Jim Oliver says:

    Under a blinding orange sunset, I drove to my 90 year-old Mother’s house in the woods, I ate fried chicken with Lucy. Just the two of us. She went to bed at dark. I got a big bag of jelly beans and sat down to see if the Nats had perhaps traded Perez and Lombardozzi for Clayton Kershaw. I then made the only mistake of the day. I read this dad gum article.

    Thanks, Ted.

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