Ask Boswell: Redskins, Nationals and Washington sports

Aug 17, 2015

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

God, give me strength. It's like I have a three-hour appointment every day with depression.

Before the ’15 season began, almost everyone, including me, framed the Nationals season as one which deserved the highest expectations. However, I never picked the Nats to win the World Series or go to it, although that seemed harmless for a writer with a D.C. paper, provided you added the obvious caveat: Nobody knows. If you’re wrong, you say, “Man, was I wrong.” Eat crow and move on.

But, in spring training, I bumped into Bob Boone, Nats VP, on a remote backfield and chatted with him for a long time. His father won an RBI title. He won eight gold gloves. One of his sons had a 141-RBI year and another son hit a pennant-winning homer. Nobody’s lived the game more. And Boone was worried.

His concerns led me to write a column on March 3rd that may help Nats followers grasp what is happening to their collapsing, pressing and shell-shocked 57-58 team right now. And perhaps it can also underline to those fans how important the team’s final 45 games both for its dignity this year and its impact on future years.

I certainly never expected the Nats to be 4 ½ games behind the Mets on August 17. But Boone certainly knew it was a possibility. And why.

Here’s a condensed version of that March 3 column:  

The biggest obstacle to enjoying the competitive tension of the Nationals’ regular season this year is the widespread belief that there’ll be no competition in the National League East, so there’ll be no tension. And, as a result, not much fun.

The Nats won the NL East last season by 17 games, then they got better…Wake us in October on the Nats’ true opening day.

Excuse me, but this isn’t how baseball works. Since 1983, 14 teams have won their division by 15 games or more. Five — more than a third — failed to repeat, including teams that had demolished their divisions by 21 1/2 and 20 games.

Last week, Nats Vice President Bob Boone -- son of an MLB All-Star and father of two MLB standouts -- helped me get my attitude adjusted.

“The [Miami] Marlins scare the hell out of me,” Boone said.

At first, I thought, “Oh, come on.” Then I remembered the most wins by any team since ’06 — 1906 — was 116 by the 2001 Mariners. That was also the best team for which any Boone played (son Bret, with 141 RBI).

All the things that some Nats may now think or even say — such as “How can we lose?” or “Where’s my ring?” — were said then about the (’02) Mariners…Seattle, on paper, had a monstrous offense and no concerns as obvious as the Nats’ reworked bullpen, suspect bench and run-of-the-mill defense.

What happened? The Angels, who had finished 41 games behind Seattle, gained 47 games on them in one year and won the 2002 World Series. Seattle won 23 fewer games and finished third — in its division…

The point here is not to predict how close the Marlins (or the improved Mets) might come to the Nats. Or to foresee 105 Washington wins. What will make this season a pleasure to watch is a proper appreciation of how difficult and inexplicable these multi-season quests for glory almost always are…

Most title quests, especially for cities that have not won it all in approximately an eternity, are laborious and full of scars, including seasons that seem wasted, such as the Nats’ walkabout in 2013. Those treks often include playoff losses to more poised, experienced clubs, such as the Nats’ defeats at the hands of the born-to-the-purple Cardinals and Giants.

Young players such as Bryce Harper can perhaps be excused, at least to a degree, for saying silly, bumptious things, whether out of 22-year-old ebullience or vanity. They just don’t know. Yet.

But the experience of every fan is diminished when, in March, we are tempted to deny baseball’s relentless ability to absolutely shred sensible expectations.

A season without anxiety is six months with diminished pleasure, unless we just want to count gaudy home run, strikeout and win totals all summer. Oh, that doesn’t sound so bad? Especially after D.C.’s 91 years without a postseason series win.

Perhaps the worst outcome for the Nats would be an easy cakewalk summer. In baseball, you look for the three Gs. Players with “gifts” who will “grind” all season and who are also “gamers” capable of relaxing, focusing and producing under the greatest pressure.

The Nats’ gifts are undeniable, and their clubhouse is full of grinders. But with a few exceptions such as Harper, who has slugged .600 in his two Octobers, the Nationals have lacked sufficient playoff gamers.

To the degree such iciness can be learned, it’s only developed under duress. The best case for the Nats, odd as it seems, is probably not another 17-game cakewalk. Some goose bumps — and critics lumping “How can we lose?” with “World Series or Bust” — probably won’t damage these Nats as much as it might toughen them. This team may face more adversity than it expects. And gain from it.

As a fan how do you remain calm and not get worked up about the way the Nats are currently playing? I'm sure the players are trying hard but it's frustrating to tune in each day with familiar results. One of three things seem to happen. Either the offense doesn't show up, the starting pitching doesn't show up or the bullpen blows it. It seems rare these days to see all three in sync.

We interrupt this vacation (mine) to help you with your screaming exercises!

As I mentioned in last week's chat, I'm "off" now for a couple of weeks in what is often described as "vacation." But for baseball fans, there sometimes seems to be no "true" vacation. For many of us, the game is a beloved addiction.

This will be a short (unscheduled) chat. Yes, despite days at the beach and on the golf course since last Monday I have managed to watch almost every pitch of every Nats game, some of the O's remarkable fight for a wildcard spot and four days of the wonderful PGA Championship. And, yes, the Skins exhibition game. Talk about a bus man's holiday. I don't know whether the "record" button on my Cable system is an invention of the Devil or not. Seems likely.

All things considered, the Nats played decently for 100 games -- 54-46 despite waves of injuries and some awful seasons by key players like Jayson Werth, Anthony Rendon, Doug Fister, Ryan Zimmerman and Stephen Strasburg, all of whom were on the DL, some twice, Rendon three times. Ian Desmond, to that point, had a nightmare season and Denard Span, playing well, was on tract to miss half of the year. At that point, they led the Mets by three games heading to New York.

Since then, just when they thought they were getting healthy, they have hit an absolutely classic tailspin that starts as annoyance, then turns into concern (as the Mets swept three games), then quickly morphs into all the faces of a collapse in which a team loses at least 10 more games than it wins -- in the Nats case their current 4-13 skid.

Almost all such collapses look the same. Hitters try too hard, swing too hard and chase bad pitches. Pitchers worry that they need to be perfect to win -- then create unnecessary problems for themselves (like Gio vs SF) and give up five runs early on a night when it turns out that they probably WERE going to get five or six runs of support. And the manager always looks lost in the headlights -- either doing to little and appearing clueless or doing too much and seeming to panic.

In Matt Williams's case, he does appear to have Caretaker Manager characteristics -- meaning he's been given what the organization feels is a pat-hand team and his job is just not to mess it up. So when things go VERY wrong, his marching orders -- go by the book, players-win-and-lose-not-managers --are not suited to the crisis at hand. A manager with no previous (extensive minor-league) managerial experience seldom has the skill set to do much motivational work on the group's psyche. 

For years I've written about how seasons are built -- or destroyed -- by streaks of +10 wins (like 14-2, 17-5) or -10 loses. Teams that makes the playoffs usually have at least one more +10 than they have -10. 

As everyone points out, the Nats are lucky to be in the weak N.L. East.  I'd say they are more than lucky. In most years, "unbeatable" teams -- like the '02 Mariners -- who do get beaten, find themselves dead if they only play 58-59 ball.

Even the Mets, after three straights loses, are only on pace for 86.5 wins. And I'd guess that's where they'd end up -- 85-to-88 wins, depending in part on how they fare in their last six games against the Nats. So, the Nats, if they have it in them to pull out of the spiral, have enough time to do it.

BUT this team has not pulled itself together "in time" in the past -- either in the whole '13 season or after they fell behind in Game 1 in the '14 playoffs.

The Nats next 12 games are against the Rox, Milwaukee, Padres and Marlins. If that can't square them away, then they need to look in the mirror. They've gotten dominated by a lot of top pitchers. That excuse now disappears. 

You've watched a lot of baseball in your years. What percentage do you give the nats of coming back and winning the division?

I bet Neil Greenberg has a (statistical) view on that.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/fancy-stats/wp/2015/08/17/forget-everything-you-heard-its-time-for-the-nats-to-panic/

The way the Nats have played so far -- even factoring in their injuries -- they don't deserve to win anything. Except for a half-dozen players, led by Harper, they haven't performed near their career norms. And only Werth, 36, is old enough for age to be a primary cause.  If you don't perform, you don't deserve rewards -- even a "discount" NL East win.

Short answer: A 4 1/2 game lead can change fast. I don't just mean that the Nats can get back on the Mets necks quickly. I also mean that they can be -8 or more behind very quickly.

This team has "form" to disprove. In '13, they kept telling themselves that they'd get hot and beat the Braves. Then the Braves came to DC, killed the Nats in mid-August and left them too far behind to have a realistic chance, even when they Nats finished on a month-long hot streak.

Will the Nats keep thinking, "We're close enough. We still have time," until one day they are not "close enough." 

The No. 1 Problem of the '12-'15 Nats is an inability to play their best under duress -- in the '13 and '15 seasons (so far) and when they faced huge pressure in the playoffs. They have not handled pressure well. They have another chance to prove that they CAN. And also another chance to show that it really IS a big problem for them.

What does he need to do in order to get consistent playing time?

Espinosa and Clint Robinson deserve to play more and should play more. As I wrote about 10 days ago, they should each start a couple of times a week, at least. Espinosa has gotten only 23 plate appearances in the last 19 games. (Bad.) Robinson has 34 plate appearances (Not a problem.)

The Nats have played 19 games in the last 19 days. The three key hitters coming back from the DL -- Werth, Rendon and Zimmerman -- have started 16, 18 and 17 of those games. Should they have been given another couple of days off each as they tried to get their timing and game legs back? Easy to say now. 

Is Matt Williams on the hot seat now after this week's performance?

I'm sure he's burning up -- inside -- because he's a very driven person. But he's Rizzo's guy -- his top pick for manager when he had every choice available in the game after the '13 season. At this point, you have to let the team and the manager play out their fate together.

Baseball is a tough sport to love because, as Bart Giamatti said, it seems to break your heart, in some way, almost every year. Got to say that Washington is getting the Full Baseball Experience, jammed into a fairly brief '05-'15 window!

One important note (to me). I watched the 12-6 loss in SF the next day and watched to see what the Nats level of effort was after they fell behind 9-2. I was almost amazed at how intense they were. I couldn't find a single example of less than committed effort -- and I was looking. Desmond made a dive for a ball he had almost no chance to reach -- down by a ton of runs -- and knocked the wind out of himself. There are 10 ways to "try hard," fail to make that play and NOT knock the hell out of yourself. He chose 100 percent and pain. Latter in the game, Robinson, Rendon and Rivero pulled off the most amazing 3-4-1 putout that you'll ever see -- all based on max effort and some danger when they were five runs down very late in the game.

When pitchers like Bumgarner, Kershaw and Grienke are at their best, they make teams look like they aren't trying. Discount some of that -- though not all. The effort is there. It is the poise under pressure that is missing.

I know the statmeisters and sabremetricians have their ironclad analyses, but isn't it clear that the gods of baseball are tormenting the Nats for their "best team in baseball" and "where's my ring?" talk? The rubber chicken might help again, but would it kill someone connected to the team to say "We're not the best team in baseball until we win something"? It might appease the deities who control these things.

Nobody in baseball has missed this point.

In '15 or '14 or '13 or '12.

Bumgarner is one of those who is not impressed with teams that haven't won big, but talk big. I wondered if he'd come out for the ninth on Sunday -- due to pitch count (ended at 112) or up-coming SF schedule or some such stuff. Then I thought, "Are you kidding. He LOVES to stick it to these guys. Nothing could keep him from finishing this shutout."

It's tough to establish a swaggering identity, win 98-86-96 doing it that way, then add more players with some attitude, like Scherzer, Papelbon and even Escobar, then say, "Hey, we'd like to back off a little on the expectations and predictions."

MANY excellent teams in many sports have EMBRACED their status as favorites and said (as the Nats also have): Yes, we are good. But now we have to prove it.

It's "proving it" the first time that's a tough hurdle.

Is it just me, or did Bryce Harper's strike zone get increasingly larger as the road trip went on? He seems to have last some of his patience and/or eye at the plate. Would you agree?

He CRUSHED the ball in SF, especially some loud outs as well as his three-run homer, until he ran into lefty-killer Bumgarner.

I'm amazed his OPS stayed over 1.100 until Game 115. He's having an amazing season and plays as hard as you'd want anybody to play. I enjoy his responses -- usually -- including his fingers-over-his-eyes look of amazement after Desmond's 477-foot homer OVER the bleacher's at the 382-foot sign on Saturday. But everything he does makes him -- and his team --a lightning rod. A lot of "lightning rod" players -- controversial extroverts -- from Babe Ruth, Reggie Jackson, Pete Rose and many others -- have won a LOT of games. THEIR teams had little problem incorporating their personalities for the sake of their production. Or feeding off their personalities.

Come on Tom, You have recently been writing articles saying you never predicted a world series win or even participation. That might be true, but that's beside the point. You have written dozens of articles saying we fans shouldn't worry, this team is historically talented, once healthy this team will figure it out and can match up with the best teams, this pitching staff is historically talented, yada yada. You sold this team to its fans as among the best in recent years. Look at this team now. Where were you wrong?

All your points have some validity.

On the other hand, all the "yada, yada" was fact-based.

My dad enjoyed my writing but used to tease me that "you don't predict the future any better than anybody else." Meaning "not at all." I agree. And I try to stay away from it.

But all analysis is done in a context -- and until 15 games ago, writing about the Nats in the context of "They Will Collapse, Just Watch, Because I Can See 4-13 Coming" would have been nuts. 

Now the context is different. But the context is NOT "they are dead" or "they are awful."

Part of the context is that, if the Nats DON'T win the N.L. East, they will be the SIXTH team out of the last 15 that won its division by 15-or-more games that did NOT repeat as division champ. That would be 40 percent in the current division era and that would be amazin'. And something to remember in future seasons.

....

 

He's looked awful in his last relief appearances. Is he mentally checking out?

No, not until -- maybe -- he'd given up two runs in the eighth to make it 12-5 Giants on Saturday. Williams came to the mound (McCatty had been ejected). That didn't seem to rouse Storen much. Then, after Williams left, Desmond got in Storen's face and gave him a pump up talk. Whatever he said, it worked. Every pitch Storen threw after that was an excellent -- sharp, on the black, as many pitches had been over the middle before that. Maybe Desmond will manage someday. 

...

I guess "if it bleeds it leads" is still true. Skins win. RGIII looks okay (but not impressive to me). Cousins looks good (against reserves). Few questions on 'em and those with a negative slant. 

PGA was fabulous. Everybody seems to forget that, at the U.S. Open, Day and Spieth were playing together, both near the lead, when Day COLLAPSED from vertigo in the fairway and looked like a fighter who'd been knocked out. He's had the condition for a while and it's scared him (of course). Nobody even knew if he could walk that almost-mountainous course and finish the tournament with collapsing/withdrawing.

Now, in two months, he goes from staggering bravely just to finish his rounds to shooting the LOWEST SCORE (relative to par) in the history of major tournament golf (since 1861) and there are no "questions" or comments on it. Not knocking the fine chatters here -- Nats are the hot topic and the reason I decided to chat a little today. But I still find it interesting.

See you next Monday at 11. 

Sports presents some really tough tests -- like Day with all his near-misses in majors (plus the vertigo that can, apparently, show up whenever it feels like it). But, after years of trying to get over the "major hump,"  he beat Spieth head-to-head. (Great "thumbs up" by Spieth to Day on 17th green after an excellent Day lag putt.) 

That's one reason we love sports. To see how people respond to tough tests, to stress, to years of disappointment when they can't quite reach their goal even though they are excellent at what they do. The Nats are a fine team, with a list of disappointments in recent years, who facing something similar now. That makes every week even more interesting. 

 

Everybody's been pining for it, but will 2016 really bring the new big three for golf? Speith, McIlroy, and now with Day joining them, the next 10 years could be something else.

Golf's very appealing right now. And, in aa year, it might be more like a Big Four or Big Five.

Irony: One reason that golf is still doing well without (a competitive) Tiger is because Woods' genius-level play and ferocious competitiveness inspired a generation of golfer/athletes who are now filling his place admirably.

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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