Ask Boswell: Redskins, Nationals and Washington sports

May 12, 2014

Washington Post Sports Columnist Tom Boswell answered your questions about the Redskins, the Capitals, the Nationals, the rest of D.C. sports and more.

Past Ask Boswell chats

Why are the Nats so bad in the first inning?

Because there isn't an inning before the first inning which would give them an opportunity to be bad sooner?

Have you heard Williams trying to create two bullpens like Davey?

Except for Saturday night's loss the bullpen has been the team's strength.

The idea of "A" and "B" bullpens applies, for Davey, when good teams have long winning streaks and you don't want to exhaust the closer and setup man by using them several days in a row. The Nats haven't had long winning streaks so it hasn't been an issue. 

Boz, The Wiz have generated a two-week buzz by getting to, and winning one game in, the second round of the playoffs for the first time in 30 years. No championships in a major sport (leave soccer aside for now) in 30 or 90 years, depending on the sport. Three billionaire owners of the Skins, Nats and Caps. Good, not rabid, fan support. What's your assessment of the current sports scene in DC--are we long-suffering fans, maybe the only major metro area without a championship in 30 years, with rich owners who can't get it right despite constant trying, in their own way and very cynical fans that include more than a generation who haven't experienced what championship caliber teams look and feel like? Or are you a glass half-full guy, with cause for optimism despite the seeming downward trajectory of the Caps, the chaos that is the Skins, and the underachieving of the Nats? I could use some optimism on this downer of a Monday!

It's hard to step back but lets try. Of the young No. 1-overall draft picks in recent years, none has been an instant MVP or led a team to a championship game. But not one -- out of RGIII, Wall, Strasburg and Harper -- has been a bust. And all, relatively early in their careers, have now been part of team that reached the Final Eight in their sports -- an NFC East title for RGIII, an NL East win for the Nats in Stras and Harper's first season together and now Wall teaming with Bradley to reach the NBA's final eight.

Wall is clearly improving. His shot has betrayed him in the Indiana series but part of that is the Pacers' excellent defense. RGIII will improve as much as his knee allows. I think that will be "a lot" next season. Harper improved across the board in his second season; and his injuries so far have not been career changers. And I think Strasburg gets (slightly) more polished every year. They are all VERY good players. But none is great yet. Which, if any, will get there?

Maybe everybody a couple of years ago could/should have said: "Wow, look at these FOUR 1/1 draft picks in the same town on the heels of Ovechkin winning MVPs after being a 1/1! That's great BUT there are certain to be growing pains and frustrations ."

I'm surprised that 1) there are no busts but also that 2) not one of them is get a truly amazing player yet.

The Caps and Ovi are in a different category. They're had many years to develop. Their window doesn't have sure a pretty view. And they just fired their coach and GM. The Skins, Wiz and Nats are many years away from that level of frustration and disappointment.

It was a VERY bad weekend but within the context of one of the best eras for super-high-ceiling pro athletes in the history of DC sports. All in all, maybe the best era for such talent all playing at the same time. A year/season is a chapter. The "books" on the Skins, Nats and Wiz are still being written.

Why are the Nats so mentally weak? All the first inning runs, problems after errors, yesterdays meltdown? If Patton were here he'd slap their faces.

They look awful right now. But the slap in the face seldom works in baseball. This season will certainly test Matt Williams leadership skills. Perhaps he could/should underline to his team that their pitching staff  -- one of the best in baseball -- is now 100 percent healthy. So, if the defense will, please, stop having a nervous breakdown -- or several of them -- every night, it would not be unreasonable to win quite a few close low-scoring games and play around .500 (or better) until some regulars get back. Many teamss will excellent pitch have scored enough runs with less good bats in the center of their lineup than the Nats still have with Werth, Ramos, Desmond, as well as decent vets like Span and McLouth and a rising young hitter like Rendon.

In other words, they don't have sufficient reason to be this rattled with >140 games left. Long spring, summer, fall. Take it easy.

The Wiz, on the other hand, don't have that luxury. They have to find a way to go to Indiana and play one energetic decent-shooting game against the Pacers -- then see what it gets them in a Game 6.

Sorry,Tom, I polled 41 fans, inclding 13 SABR geeks at a Saturday meeting, and no one felt a 3  1/2 hour rain delay was ever jusifiable. People have work. Kids have school. People go to a game to be entertained, not for three hours of misery. Lots of people lost lots of money on this one. The Nats could reap a lot of good will, and sell a lot of concessions, if they allowed fans to exchange rain checks from that game to a couple future games they know won't sell out, except most fans have probably already tossed them.

The "free rain check" idea is a good one to remember for future reference because, sooner or later, there will be a similar circumstance. The decision to wait was made entirely by the umps, not the Nats. But the Nats could have turned it into a "good will " event for the team.

There are usually extra factors when you see such a long rain delay. The Dodgers only come to D.C. once a year. Umps could not know if they could get three games played in the next two days. It did rain Wednesday. So, the Nats wanted to preserve their 2-0 lead (and so would their fans, you'd think). The Dodgers would hate the idea of a late-season coast-to-coast makeup game that could be brutal to them in the middle of a September pennant race.

I'm a 35 year old not especially athletic woman. l I play on a coed softball team where each side has to field at least three women. I'n usually stuck in short CF where it's thought I can do the least damage. However by practicing fielding before games and in the occasional odd moment, I have become a much better fielder. My teammates and other sports fans tell me there is no excuse for any MLB player to not be at least an adeqate fielder. So what's up with the Nats? If it works for me it should certainly work for much more talented and better conditioned professional players.

Fielding becomes such second nature to most ballplayers who are good enough to make the majors that they don't think about the "acts" of fielding, they just do it. When a team gets in a fielding slump, and such things happen, everybody is suddenly THINKING about fielding as they are doing it. That way madness lies. You and I don't think about the act of walking down the street (or we might trip). Big leaguers have fielded thousands or tens of thousands of balls. Sometimes I think that all the Nats "extra" remedial fielding practice in spring training and before games under Williams-- almost like being punished for poor defense last year -- can be counter productive. It reinforces the idea that they aren't good enough. They sure look like a team that is thinking too much on defense. Defense is repetition (practice) then reaction (in games). But it is also relaxation/confidence. Great defensive teams/players almost seem nonchalant at times. They sure don't seem tight. What's the proper balance? Don't know. But the Nats sure don't have it right now.

Too early to fantasize about having Walters in the OF instead of Span? OBP can improve, and what an arm! As a bonus, once Williams is comfortable that he has learned where to throw the ball in various situations, Walters can teach Harper.

Ha. The only good side of bad injuries is the opportunity it gives to key players to establish themselves by playing every day. The Nats need to find out if Tyler Moore can be their first baseman next year. He has not seemed central to their plans this year, to say the least, with the quick demotion to AAA despite LaRoche's gimpy quad. But 15 days at first base is a good chance for him to "show." Also, Walters has big power, a big arm and natural athleticism. Johnson saw him as a potential future star, not just a useful piece. Lets hope he gets some PT. 

After last Sunday's home game I talked with LaRoche for a  while about his quad, whether he was taking too big a risk pushing himself day after day. He said that he thought his own nature was part of the problem -- he really hates to say, "I can't go today." You know, dad a long-time big leaguer. Be a 'gamer.'

It's tough for a rookie manager to throw a rope around a vet who is hot and wants to play. But I thought a week ago that LaRoche and Williams had gotten themselves into a mini-suicide pact. If it's really just the 15-day DL and then he's back okay, then it's no big deal. But when I talked to LaRoche I asked if he was concerned that he might mess up a lot more than just a couple of weeks if he hurt himself worse. He was aware of it. But with Harper (LH hitter) and Zimmerman out of the lineup, he wanted to push. It's one of those tough calls that players and managers have to make. We'll see how soon LaRoche returns and at what level of ability to run and field.  

It seems that this has been a problem for the Wiz going back before the playoffs. They win one quarter, big, but lose the rest of the game. That either results in them building a big lead early, only to fritter it away to squeak by or lose (2014 playoffs), or they dig themselves a big hole, and rally to get close and *maybe* eke a win out. I suspect the difference between the Wizards and the elite teams is the ability to go on a run at some point in the game, without getting run on in turn.

Yes, it's been an issue all season. The NBA is a league of streaks and hot-runs within games. When coaches talk about "consistency" and "maturity," they are, in part, talking about the ability to milk you own runs and choke off the come-back rallies against you. When a proven team like the Pacers makes a run at you from -19, do you show poise? Do you know which shooters will keep their nerve to counter that run and which may tend to get caught up in the moment and squeeze off nervous shots to stem the run?

I haven't seen anybody mention this but I think it's been a key issue in Games 2 and 4: Do the Wizards have an offensive team identity in the last three minutes of close games? That's when top teams know that "the offense runs through Kobe" (or LeBron or any top player in any decade). Maybe Kobe, Magic or MJ doesn't take the shot, but they "create" -- either their own shot or foul shots or good shots for others. Right now, the Wiz don't seem to know, late in games in half court, does everything go through Wall or Beal? Or do they look for veterans like Ariza for a trey or to post players like Nene and Gortat? They seem to look for everything. The end game is for NBA stars and always has been. Right now, Wall is still presumably the Wiz No. 1 star. But without him making (or trusting) his jump shot in pressure situations, it's tough to run the late-game offense through him.

Right now, I'd focus on Beal as Option One in the last three minutes. There has to be some sense of team hierarchy when the game is on the line. Maybe Bird, for example, didn't take every big shot but he created for others. Sometimes teams like OKC get torn between two big stars at such times. Not easy, but necessary.  

Mr Boswell Has Tony Kornheiser licensed the use of "Choking dogs" for any columnist to use on the 'zards? Or did right of use convey with the building and Ted? MVMD

I think Tony preferred "choking dogs" for the Caps, didn't he?

Remember, for decades the Wiz/Bullets have not been good enough to truly choke. The franchise has not had ONE SEASON when it even reached .550 since '77-'78! And that includes this year (44-38). And .550 isn't asking THAT much, especially when measured over 35 years. In MLB, .550 is only 89 wins and the NFL it is only 8.8 wins.

So, before we accuse these Wizards of choking perhaps we should remember that they haven't yet established themselves as an excellent regular-season team. When the Caps wins the Presidents Cup, then lose in the first round to Montreal (16th in pts in reg season), that is choking. When the Nats win 98, then blow a 6-0 lead in a winner-take-all game, then you can ask, "Did they choke?"

Rendon or Machado...Ramos or Wieters? For a career, not just this year.

Wieters has stayed healthy enough to average 140 games and 556 plate appearances the last four years. That's allowed him to average 22.3 homers the last three years. So, he's "put up numbers" even though his career OPS+ is merely 99. (100 is M LB average) Wieters is hurt now. But Ramos hasn't prov ed he can stay on the field yet, even though his per-at-bat numbers, like OPS, are better than Wieters.

Machado had a big full season last year with amazing defense. I'm still not sure how much his knee injury has cost him. I hope "nothing." Rendon is very promising. But he hasn't put up a full year yet and his errors at third are worse than expected (though he makes plenty of good plays, too).

So, right now, Wieters and Machado have more "career evidence." Machado and Rendon could both be very special hitters.

When will Williams give him a day off to collect himself?

Williams has given almost no rest to anybody who has stayed healthy -- Desmond (37 of 37), Rendon (37 of 37), Espinosa, Werth (35 of 37) and LaRoche (34 of 35 until DL). He's asked them to hold the fort. But I'm not sure the fort needs holding  -- THAT badly -- in April-May. Everyday it seems like "those guys HAVE to play tonight. Big game. Need a win." Then you look back after almost a quarter of the season and think, "Gee, nobody got much rest. And some of their bats are cooling off."

Matt wanted to find out about managing in the majors but I'm not sure he wanted to learn this much this fast. Talk about a tsunami of decisions.

Davey let his players pretty much play themselves into shape in spring training, while Matt ran a very regfimented camp.. But, if anything, this year's team is even worse with fundamentals and fielding than last year's team. What gives?

Managers matter. I find it hard to believe that many rookie managers have ever been better in their first year than any manager (like Johnson) who was >300 games over .500 (15th in history, has been in any year, even late in his career.

BUT maybe we should look more at the factor that '13 and '14 have in common. The players. They always make a lot more difference than the manager. When the mangers change but the same problems remains, maybe a lot of the issue is with the players. (Pardon the underline. Chats have weird formatting.)

I thought I was watching myself when Richard Lee hit those terrible shots at the TPC this weekend on the 17th. WOW

Anybody who has played the 17th, including pros, can tell you how much the visual issue impacts your play. You know (or the pros know) that it's not THAT hard. But it looks that hard.

Nobody gets in your head better than architect Pete Dye.

FWIW, a course in PG County -- Renditions -- has approximations (not exact duplicates) of 18 famous holes. Some of them are surprisingly close to the real experience. Haven't played there in a few years. Don't know about its current condition, cost, etc., but it has a copy of the 17th at the TPC. And it scares the hell out of you, just like the real thing.

(Yes, I played the 17th once, soon after it opened. I hit it to a foot for a tap-in -- for an eight. Yes, I hit three in the water, then a "disgusted" perfect shot. That's golf.)

Tom, There are fewer things in golf that I can't stand than the fawning over The Players Championship by NBC and much of the golf media. The TPC will never be a major so broadcasters should stop forcing this down our throats. Do pros really need to be asked "what would it mean for you to win the TPC?" Four majors with their own identity is plenty. Grand Slam means four, and not four plus.

The Players Championship has had a generation to establish itself as a major. It hasn't. But it's a first-rate event.

I was sorry to see 20-year-old Jordan Spieth have a mini-melt, get out of sorts with himself, and fade to 74 on Sunday. Martin Kaymer, the winner after a rain delay, is yet another example of a golfer who reached No. 1-2-3 in the world and then decided to change his swing to "improve." I want to scream every time I hear a player say that. Kaymer got to No. 1 (briefly) in '11, then made changes. He's been coming back ever since. He held on to win by one.  

So far this season he is terrible in handling the bullpen? Detwiler does mop up duty, Storen hadn't pitched in 12 days. He's got to get better, right?

Until the Saturday night blown lead the pen had been the Nats strength and one of the best in baseball. So it wasn't mishandled.

The Nats will have to get past Soriano cutting off that throw to the plate in the ninth that might have nailed the tying run. Soriano should have been backing up the plate. Everybody, including Williams, jumped him. They were correct. But the runner might have been safe anyway. The Nats don't need to start pointing fingers in early May. The next day, Sunday, Gio Gonzalez blew a fuse in the dugout after giving up two three-run homers to Norris in consecutive innings on 3-0 pitches. His defense let him down in both innings. BUT the Nats don't want to get in the habit of attributing blame -- aside from looking in them mirror. 

One more and done. It's a Blue Monday in D.C. so lets not belabor it. The best lesson in sports may be: "Shake it off." Hard, but essential.

Mr. Boswell, Yesterday in Oakland Cespedes hit a pop fly that Rendon was coming in to try to catch but the A's runner was in the way. It looked like the runner was trying to impede Rendon. What would the call have been if Rendon had run into the runner and caught the ball? Was the A's player being savvy or was he breaking the rules?

It was a pure fluke play as far as I could tell. The runner just ended up in the perfect place to be in Rendon's path to the pop up IF he'd called off the catcher and tried to get it.

On the TV broadcast, Carp wondered what the call would have been -- hitter out? -- if Rendon had run into the Oakland runner. F.P. didn't offer an answer and I realized I didn't know. I'll try to study up on that one and try to mention an answer next week. See you then.

And as I always try to remind myself when things are going poorly: "Don't think. You can only hurt the team."

In This Chat
Thomas Boswell
A Washington Post columnist since 1984, Thomas Boswell is known for the many books he has written on baseball, including "How Life Imitates the World Series" and "Why Time Begins on Opening Day."
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