Ask Boswell: Redskins, Nationals and Washington sports

Apr 16, 2018

Washington Post Sports Columnist Tom Boswell answered your questions about the Redskins, Capitals, Nationals, Wizards, the NFL and more.

Past Ask Boswell chats

Despite Dusty's propensity for using old school tactics over the current analytics-based approach, he won games. He knew how to navigate a ballclub over 162. The Lerners chose to kick him and his staff to the curb and gambled that a rookie manager with his analytics would improve upon that performance. Needless to say, we ain't seein' it yet. Injuries happened to last year's club yet they barely missed a beat using the likes of Stevenson, de Aza, and Sanchez in the every day lineup. We'll never know the answer but would the Nats be in this predicament with Dusty still at the helm?

When you do things that are dramatically against the norm in a particular profession, regardless of what it is, then you open up two possibilities. 1) The norms are there for a reason, you took a risk by going against them and you lost. 2) Norms are fine. But they aren't always right. You made a good decision. But until that decision proves to be correct, you bear the extra weight, and psychological burden, of having to answer for your unconventional and easily criticized decision.

Right now, with the Nats, we have too examples of this. First, firing a good-to-very-good manager in Baker who had won 95 and 97 games, back-to-back -- something which few teams would have done -- so you could hire a rookie manager (ANY rookie manager). Second, Ryan Zimmerman skipped all but two ABs in spring training so he could rest his high-mileage body, stay strong through the summer and be at his best in October, assuming the Nats got there.

Until the Nats start winning and Zimmerman starts hitting, they will be second-guessed on these decisions because 1) they may be unwise and 2) because unconventional decisions always attract EXTRA criticism.

In the stock market, being a contrarian -- going against such "norms" -- is almost the only way to get exceptional results. Going with the usual conventions results in a famous investing expression: "You pay a high price for a cheery consensus." The only way to get a great result is to pay a CHEAP price -- which means going against consensus and against conventional reasoning.

But going against consensus is not enough to win. You have to pick your spots and be correct in your unconventionality.

My answer: The Nats and Zim did not make crazy decisions. But they will be under extra pressure until they are proven right. And if they are proven wrong, the damage will be greater than failing with "normal" conventional behavior.

I gave my opinions of both in real time. In this chat, a few days before Baker was fired, I said that Baker was a good-to-very-good manager and unless you could get somebody that you KNEW was better, it was a mistake to fire him and that NO ROOKIE MANAGER could possibly fit that description. IOW, as one example, if the O's were dumb enough to fire Buck, sure, then you can consider firing Baker. So, I was against firing Baker for any proven manager who was then on the market and I was against any rookie manager, no matter how promising. That doesn't mean Martinez can't turn out to be excellent. But it does mean he's fighting through more than the normal obstacles for a rookie manager because he is replacing Baker after Dusty was fired at a time when standard baseball wisdom would be: "How can you fire a fine manager after he wins 192 games in two years and loses by ONE RUN in two thrilling Game 5s where opposing teams had to burn the book to win -- with Kershaw pitching in relief on almost no rest and Wade Davis getting  the first 7-out save of his life.

I liked Zimmerman's decision and basically said it was worth trying. Well, it sure ain't working. He's been one of the two or three worst players in MLB so far this season. And hitting in tough luck doesn't explain more than a small part of it.

Additional point: At this juncture, I'm willing to accept that Zim, except when he's in a hot streak, is bothered by hitting behind Harper. Martinez knows this from the "pitch to Zim" strategy the Cubs have used against the Nats.

So, no matter how many injuries you have, and the Nats have three big ones now in Murphy, Eaton and Rendon, I still think you have to bat somebody else, even if it is .291-career hitter Howie Kendrick, behind Harper, then put Zim at No. 5.

Boz, This is a bit ghoulish but Michael Taylor has to be at least a *bit* relieved that Robles is out of action for a bit, right? If Taylor were the only one struggling that's one thing but 3-4 empty slots in the lineup screams "call up the top prospect." But he has a reprieve, for now (though Goodwin seems likely to take PT against tough RHPs)

This is a huge year for Taylor. The "job is his" in CF. When Harper leaves after this year (operating assumption), then Robles and Taylor both fit in an exceptional defensive OF in '19. But Taylor has to hit -- not much, but enough. Even .240 with 18 homers and 25 steals would be enough. (Taylor is already 5-for-5 in steals.)

In his last two at bats on Sunday, he doubled to right, then doubled to left. A very good sign. But he has looked out of sync for weeks. He could certainly be a big help in NYC with just a couple of good swings at the right time. He's always tended to feel pressure. But that didn't bother him in Game 4 and Game 5 last year. He's streaky. Soon, Eaton will return, probably Rendon fairly quickly and a functioning Taylor would help right the ship.

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For those interested in the Boston Marathon, which is always a lot of people, here's a "live post" on it and a viewers guide.

What do you think about the performance of the DC GMs given their struggles in the post-season. It seems that with the Caps and Nats, they make mental mistakes that cost them important victories. It's hard to say that the teams that beat them in the playoffs are more talented than they are, but mental mistakes seem do hurt their odds. Giving up power play opportunities at critical junctures in the game, base running gaffes. It's as if the GMs for the Caps and Nats go for talent more so than getting gamers who are obsessive about winning and have the highest level of concentration. For the Wiz, Ernie Grunfeld does a great job of picking out upper echelon talent (Beal, Wall, and Porter) but he's less talented at finding pieces that make up a team that can go deep in the post-season. Finding those lesser pieces that fit what you want to do and do it well seems like the far more difficult task. What blame do you place on DCs GMs? (Not really including Skins GM, but feel free to comment on him too). Thanks!!

When you lose, everybody isolates and focuses on the mental mistakes, the fundamental errors. That's good. They need to be highlighted. But it also exaggerates culpability. In Game 5 in '16 and '17, the Dodgers and especially the Cubs made plenty of mistakes, including managerial mistakes. Ironically, Dusty had his bullpen set up very well throughout G5 while Maddon ended up asking Davis to get 7 outs, something Davis did (barely) though he didn't feel good by the end.

I'd say that the two GM Questions, in post-season, are 1) do you have a roster that covers all the bases without obvious weaknesses to exploit and functions TOGETHER in the playoffs and 2) have you built a team that has "a sense of team," so that the team is at least equal to the sum of its parts.

In the past, I've felt that the Wiz usually lacked the right pieces, or enough pieces. I didn't really expect them to go much further than they went. But this year, the Wiz are not maximizing what they have -- a team FULL of good shooters, and especially good three-point shooters. The problem is largely Wall misunderstanding his own game and how it should fit with this group of teammates. They can all shoot, most of them from any distance. He can't shoot from anywhere except three-point range, and even then he's the seventh best three-point shooter on the team. Until he stops taking 17 shots a game -- and 20 in Game One, they won't get the most out of what they have. Here's a link. Scroll down to "Shooting."

This year, shooting inside three feet, Wall is 13th-best on the Wiz (.635). From 3-to-10 feet, 10-to-16 feet and 16-feet-to-the-arc, he's 10th best (.317), 12th  best (.283) and 10th best (.299). Only from 3-pt range, where he's 7th best (.358) is he NOT a liability when he shoots. Yet he went 6-for-20 in G1.

Wall's career percentages from those distances are similar, some not as bad as this year, but in all cases quite poor by NBA, or even Wiz standards: .615, .323, .360, .357 and .327. In an era when NO TEAM wants to shoot the mid-range jump shot, even if you make close to .500, why is Wall taking the majority of his shots from 3'-to-the-arc while shooting UNDER 35 percent on those shots in his career and barely 30 percent this year. It's unfathomable.

Why is he allowed, even encouraged to shoot so much by Scott Brooks? Or can't he adapt to coaching?

Both the Raptors, and the Pacers who beat the LeBrons last night, are perfect examples of team's that spread the ball, are unselfish get the ball to the best shooters, including "non-stars" who still score in double figures or close to it. The Pacers have SIX players who average in double digits and two others who average 9.2 and 7.9.  This could be the Wiz -- right now. But it isn't.

So, THIS year, Ernie gets a decent grade for team construction. But the coach and players get a poor grade for utilizing what they have.

The Caps? What in God's name can you say about the Caps? they exhaust you. Throughout their history, the Caps have almost always -- and once again this year -- tended to panic one game too late, saying, essentially, "No problem. We just fell behind in this series. But let's not worry too much. No need to get desperate." Desperate as in Play Like Wild Men. Then, when they lose the NEXT game, as they did last night,  they suddenly find themselves ("I'm shocked, shocked I tell you") in a truly desperate spot. Then they sometimes Panic Completely.

Who do I blame for that? You could say that it's the coach who should push the "all hands on deck, desperation effort" button -- if his team has such a button. But when the playoff failures reach epic proportions, then go on to obliterate "epic proportions" and set unspeakable standards for choking, I think it goes higher. The GMs -- first GMGM and now GM Brian MacLellan -- have to be in charge of Urgency Management. They have meet with the coach and say, "That was a TERRIBLE Game One loss. We can't act like it's nothing."

Here's the mystery: You KNOW that the way to play your best in any team sport is focus on process, stay in the moment and emphasize excellent play rather than just obsessing about results. But you also know that, time after time, especially in the NHL and NBA, teams with their backs against the wall play with ferocious, desperate intensity that you seldom see at other times. And that my-home-is-being-invaded level of effort makes a difference. The "force of will" is real.

I don't have an answer. The way to play your best, in general, is to focus on playing in-the-moment, not looking at a scoreboard. I suppose that "team leadership" can be an issue here. When things get desperate, who leads? It generlly has to be the players.

I'm afraid your question this morning is probably better than my answer. Or maybe so many factors blend together in analyzing playoff performance -- including the GMs role -- that it is an almost insoluble equation.

I didn't get to the Nats. Rizzo is always trying to find "spark plugs" like Eaton, or ultra-focused gamers, like Murphy, or One of a Kind performers who energize their teammates simply because their natural style of play is inspiring, like Max Scherzer. And he tries to get jerks out of his clubhouse -- successfully, except for Papelbon. But that hasn't gotten him out of the first round, has it?

Sports, if we could REALLY understand it, we probably wouldn't watch it any more. Or not nearly as much.

What impresses me about Villanova and Jay Wright is that they get a lot of good players who may or may not ever see the NBA, they stick around to at least their Junior year, get to know each other and the system and for at least two out of the last three years have been extremely successful. Maryland and Mark Turgeon seem to go for really good players who let someone get in their ear and tell them that they are NBA caliber and they leave after a year and then either get drafted and bomb out or don't get drafted at all. There's very little cohesion on the court and every year seems like a do over. Granted, the exceptions to the rule are the Duke and Kentuckys who get the best players and do consistently well with a relatively new group of players every year. Coaching plays a role in that as well. My too long question is - are the Terps "stuck in the middle" of this world and simply destined to recruit fairly well every year and then watch it flounder as it did this past year. 2002 was a long time ago.

Yes, probably.

You make a lot of good points. A college basketball program has to figure out its strategy for recruiting players, and also for how long they are going to be able to keep those players. Then your coaching and motivational skills have to match the players you are able to get.

Wright seems to have figured out one of the right ways to do it -- for him. I agree with you that, so far, Turgeon hasn't.     

Something is rotten in the state of Denmark. The Nats are a very talented team, but just don't seem to be able to play fundamental baseball. I've said for many years that I blame the Nats lack of fundamentals for their poor performance against other talented teams (especially in the playoffs). Nothing is more demonstrative than last year's game 5 debacle (both the 5th inning meltdown and Lobaton getting picked off to end the 8th). Who's to blame for all these mental errors? Rizzo for how he selects players? The farm system for how they teach baseball? Rushing players to the big leagues? The major league staff for how they coach the players? The players themselves?

I did a long post in a previous chat about the Nats and sloppiness. So, I won't repeat it.

But, these days, ferocious attention to details is a tough sell to teams/players that see themselves as gifted over-dogs. Maybe it's always been that way. To wit...

The Orioles under Earl Weaver always saw themselves as underdogs to the vastly richer, and resented Yankees. One accident of the Orioles relative poverty was that their training camp in Florida only had one main (stadium) field for games and one ridiculously small practice field where the outfield walls were maybe 100 feet behind the infield dirt. IOW, you couldn't even take BP on it with a 250-to-275' CF fence. Earl Weaver had to figure out what to do with all the empty hours in spring training when 1 1/2 fields wasn't anywhere close to enough to "get all our work in" if the standard was taking lots of BP or playing simulated games on a back field. (The Nats now have their main stadium and FIVE complete "back fields," some, I think, customized to Nats Park dimensions.)

Earl's solution: One big bunch of Birds would use the main field for the normal spring training stuff. But everybody else, almost every day, took a turn on The Little Field working exclusively on fundamentals. And Earl, or Cal Ripken, Sr., was often the drill instructor. Pick offs, cut-off plays, steal and bunt defenses, "situational" baseball, relaying signs, trick base-running, defending trick plays, rundowns. Anything and everything. The Orioles always said, "God, this is AWFUL. This is so boring -- damn Orioles 'fundamentals.'"

But one Oriole, Ken Singleton, told me that the team's goal was NEVER to make a fundamental mistake from the seventh-inning onward and "we just wait for the other team to screw up, because sooner or later they will and we win again." It was amazing to watch, season after season, because it was true.

What was the LEVEL of demand for near-perfect fundamentals? I once told Weaver what Singleton had said and asked, "In the late innings, can you give me an example" of a fundamental that many teams don't emphasize, but that the O's did -- the level of baseball discipline that was demanded in that last 45-to-60 minutes of a close game.

To this day, I don't know whether he was semi-pulling my young leg. He looked me in the eye and said, "Ball ONE."

Meaning that the closer the game, the later the inning, the more important not to fall behind in the count.

Let me promise you that the current Nats have never had demands placed on them that remotely approximate what I watched for nine years on the Orioles beat. Maybe nobody makes such demands any more. But it taught me to watch the game that way. So, sometimes the Nats drive me crazy.

What fundamental mistakes did the Nats make YESTERDAY in the last three innings?

In the seventh, Harper lost track of the number of outs on a flyball in the rightfield gap. He was doubled off first base to end the inning by more than 100 feet. Both he and Martinez said that Harper was just reading the ball off the bat, thought it would be off the wall and he wanted to score from first. That's possible. About 10% possible. But I was just watching Harper. He saw the ball being caught -- the CF actually had time to wave off the RFer -- and pulled up to a stop between second and third. If he KNEW that was only the second out, wouldn't he have raced back around the bases, even if he was a dead duck? He just stood there until Henley (or something) got his attention and he headed back around second base toward first. It was either "forgot the outs" or "forgot the wind was holding up balls to RF and made a terrible base-running decision on a play that wasn't even hard for the Rockies." Either way, bad fundamentals.

In the eighth, Shawn Kelley came in and I will admit that I said in a firm voice, "Should we start a pool on whether LeMahieu or Iannetta homers off Kelley?"

Kelley got ahead of LeMahieu 0-2 with two sliders. D.J. had already hit two homers in the series. When you are ahead in the count 0-2, with one out and nobody on to a hot hitter, do you throw a strike or do you try to expand the zone and maybe get him to chase? And do you throw a fastball for a strike? Wieters liked the idea of the fastball because he thought the sliders would slow down D.J.'s bat and he tholught it was "a great peice of hitting" for LeMahieu to blast the ball out of the park for a home run.

Reggie Jackson told me that when you made a mental mistake, Weaver would "always be waiting for you on the top step of the dugout after the inning and when you got to him he would just say one word -- 'WHY?' He'd listen to what you said, but you'd better have a good answer." Then  Weaver would explain what you should have done and what your thinking should have been before the play began. How did Reggie, supposedly a primma donna, respond to Earl waiting to chew him out in public? "God, I loved the Little Weave," said Reggie, who had played on three world champions in Oakland and could have thought he was the finished product. "He taught me so much."

Assuming Kelley badly missed his spot with the FB, that is a fundamental mistake, too. Unless you have overwhelming stuff, which he doesn't, "Miss AWAY from the heart of the plate."

In the bottom of the eighth, Wieters led off with a HBP. Then, because the scouting report said the Rockie pitcher was "2.0 seconds" to the plate (very slow), he tried to steal a base for the third time in five years. You know, Earl might have been OK with that. Close play. But Wieters was out. The gods of fundamentals decreed that Taylor double later in the inning, but without Wieters on base.

Doolittel understood the blown fundamental that led to Desmond's game-winning home run in the 9th. He'd gone from 0-2 to 3-2 with three fastballs so high that "they served no purpose." Blown fundamental. After letting Desmond back in the count "he made me pay for it." 

I guess that's enough of a small case study for just one game. And this wasn't even a bad late-inning game for fundamentals from the Nats.

General trend in the game: Players are far better, and work much more, on the mechanics of hitting and pitching. So they are simply better pitchers -- with a bigger repertoire -- and hitters -- with no obvious weakness -- than in the past. Also, they are better conditioned, do far more weight work and have better diets. Also they spend far more time on studying film of foes and "thinking" the strategy of at bats. It is a MORE sophisticated and hard-working game in many ways. It wasn't "better" back then. There are only 24 hours in the day. There just isn't as much time for fundamentals.     

But in RELATIVE terms, you can still try to be better at fundamentals than the norms of this era.Tthe '12-to-'18 Nats have not been BAD at fundamentals. They just haven't been as strong in that area during a period when they were far above average in many other areas of the game. 

I see a lot of people saying 16 games is too early to panic about the Nats. So, when exactly is the right time then? 10 games back? Below .500 at end of April? One more injury to a regular? Now?

Mid-August, at the earliest.

I'm serious.

As one of many examples, I covered all 22 regular-season games between the Yanks and Red Sox in '78, the season that ended with the Bucky Dent homer in the one-game playoffs. Both teams were great -- and close in ability. They "should" have ended the season with very similar records. And they did. But how they got there was an example of the incredible streakiness of baseball and of the magnetism between teams of similar ability which seems to pull them together no matter how far they are apart in the standings at some point.  

The Yanks were 14 games behind on July 19. They were nikne games behind on Aug 13. They were 6 1/2 games behind on Sept. 1. Then they gained TEN GAMES in the standings in 15 days to lead the Red Sox by 3 1/2 games. The red Sox were dead -- except they weren't.

The Yanks ended the regular-season 9-6 -- .600 ball. And they Red Sox caught them anyway, going 12-2, to force the playoff.

I mention this race because it has such a historic place in the game. But in the last 15 years there have been so many comebacks from truly large deficits that I'm tempted to go back and do a column with a list of them.

Perhaps the best was the two-month run by the Cards to win the '11 World Series.

"If you calculate and approximate the true percentages against the Redbirds — their comeback from 10½ games behind to win the wild card on the last midnight of the regular season; beating the Phillies and Brewers in the playoffs as underdogs while spotting them home-field advantage; and, finally, beating the Rangers, an almost universal pick to win this series — you’d probably come up with something like 1,000 to 1."

That whole column is still fun (to me).

The final night of the regular season, when the Red Sox and Braves expired, after blowing huge leads, was an emblem of this period. So, don't kid yourself, the Mets (or Nats) might at some point THIS season have a 10-game lead and blow it. MLB is every bit as streaky as it ever was.

The coaches change. Most of the players change. Yet every year indiscipline and stupid penalties doom the Caps. I don't know if this happens to every other team as well because haven't paid as close attention, but it is remarkable that this team shoots itself in the skate year after year.

It's incredible. It's awful. It's unparalleled in American pro sports history. Ever. And it's all ours.

In fact, the Caps level of failure is so unique that it is silly to group it with the Skins failures of the last 25+ years, the Wiz of the last 40+ years or the Nats of the last six years.

The Caps are from another universe. And the Ovechkin/Backstrom Caps look like they are going to take the cake even by Caps standards. It ain't over. It's easier to play when you're behind and desperate. And Columbus, a No. 7 seed, is pretty close to the Caps in overall ability this regular season, but they are no sure-thing to win the first post-season series in their history.

Nonetheless, Red Sox fans, Cubs fans, Buffalo Bills fans -- in their various periods of agony -- got NOTHIN' on Caps fans.

I watched in awe last night as they DUPLICATED every mistake they had made in Game One -- dumb penalties, especially -- and managed to blow a PAIR of two-goal leads again at home.

Still cant get used to calling him Davey. There's only one Davey. Anyway, your column today is excellent. Captures the moment well. The Nats are on a crumbling cliff right now. It's only the first reel but this might be what filmmakers call foreshadowing. It's safe to say that this doesn't bode well for the season. That said, the great thing about sports is that the script is unwritten. I won't comment on how badly the Nats are playing. It's pretty obvious. I'm interested in your take so far on the manager. Fans are up in arms, already demanding his head. I'm not one of them. Still, I'm seeing reasons to be concerned. It's an axiom in football that if the team is sloppy it's because of bad team preparedness and that's the fault of the coaching. How much of this can be blamed on bad preparedness? Martinez inherited an excellent team that was supposed to waltz to the division title. Did he expect the season to be just a rehearsal for the playoffs and so he didn't get them ready to battle? And how is he handling the pressure? He's been great in protecting his team from criticism but I thought I saw a crack in that Friday night when he blamed that loss on giving the other team extra outs through errors. Well, the only guy who made an error that cost the team was Trea Turner. Seemed like he kind of threw Turner under the bus. Your thoughts.

It is FAR too soon to evaluate any first-year manger. It's ridiculous. His team is 7-9, not 1-15.

Murphy's been out all year. He has no 5th starter and not enough bullpen depth. His cleanup hitter is batting ~.120. Now Eaton and Rendon are hurt. Etc. He has not even made a mistake -- ONE mistake -- that is so obvious that you could say "Look what he did! This is awful!" He's made choices. He hasn't made blunders. Give the guy a chance. Like months and months of chances.

MLB is full of new managers who fit the IBM "middle-manager" profile. They always speak positively, deflecting blame from players and searching under the rubble for "positives." At one point in the '16 Series when the Cubs were down 3-to-1, Joe Maddon turned himself into a pretzel to say ridiculous things that would put a "positive spin" on a Series that they were blowing -- and feeling the pressure -- from a Cleveland team that was DECIMATED by injuries. The Indians pitching was shell of itself. Francona was on the cusp of being the manager of the millennia. Maddon was on the brink of ANOTHER Cubs collapse.

Yet Maddon said exactly the kind of happy-talk pablum that Martinez offered on Sunday. I wanted to throw a pen at Maddon on the podium in '16.

But that IS a "managerial style" these days. And it does work for some managers -- IF you communicate FAR more honestly in private than you do in public and STILL keep an upbeat tone even while dispensing constructive criticism. Maddon has proved he can. Maybe Martinez can, too.

Some can't. Like Matt Williams. He was also a "constructive" PR guy with cornball slogans posted in the clubhouse. Same middle-manager idea -- the guy who implements the ideas from the analytics department, the GM, the scouts, the whole Organizational Big Brain.  The problem was that Williams was deeply uncommunicative with players in private when things went bad. He was "positive" in public, but he was a "zero" in private.

It's easy to mock the "Circle of Trust" stuff. It would come very naturally to me to do it. But it can work.

However, when a team is playing badly, the last thing the public wants to hear every day is "the boys are giving good effort." But the Nats ARE giving good effort. (They're also doing quite a bit of dumb stuff.)

Martinez will ultimately be judged on his results and on his visible strategies -- roster, bullpen usage, lineups, etc. But we aren't going to find out how he's approach is "playing" with the team for a long time. If it's not working, at some point, this year, next year, whatever, there will be a moment like Werth's comment to Williams -- "When do you think you lost this team?" But if things go well under Martinez, it's likely that a lot of his better work will be masked by his (genuinely) upbeat daily disposition and his likeable, but not flashy, personality. He will NOT "promote" himself, just as he will (try not to) throw his players under the bus. Even when , if given truth serum, he would.

As a fan it is tough to watch them continue to come up short, I can only guess how the players feel. Neither this year, nor in any other year do I sense a lack of intensity or any sense of quit. This year I feel that the team is just not that great, particularly in goal or in the defensive pairings.

This team probably over-achieved with 105 points in regular season. So, they really don't "deserve" a first-round embarrassment. Nobody is going to want to hear that this series was always a very close match-up between two not-very-distinguished teams. The Simple Rating System at hockey-reference.com, which emphasizes goal differential and strength of schedule, has the Caps (0.21 goals per game above average) as the 5th best team in the Eastern Conference and only the 12th best team in the NHL, despite finding a way to tie for the 6th most points in regular season. Columbus (0.11) is the 6th best team in the Eastern Conference and 14th best in the NHL.

To be honest, this is probably a series between two run-of-the-mill, roughly-equal teams, neither of which will go very far even if they win this series. In other words, without all the context of Caps Misery, this would be a "Who Cares" first-round series and not worth much emotional investment.

In total contrast to the last TWO seasons when the Caps won the President's Trophy and were a true Big Story. And, especially last year when the Pens were shredded with injuries, a Monumental flop.

 

Cherry Blossoms full, warming air, Caps tanking, Nats floundering, Wiz sinking fast, Skins regressing. Am I missing anything?

My allergies are killin' me.

Otherwise, I think you covered it.

Oh, one other thing. I think the Pacers will upset the LeBrons.

My son and I went to a Cavs game in Indianapolis on Dec. 8 and saw the Pacers shrug off a lot of Cav's runs and a high-quality game from James, yet win confidently.

The Cavs constantly in-flux roster has changed a lot since then. And they finished 14-6. But the Pacers team stayed essentially in tact all year, has a bunch of fine long shooters, including the 3-pt-% leader in Darren Collison, and a brainy DeMatha guard in Victor Oladipo who's a big (invisible) star.

After their win last night, Oladipo said, "We've been doing this all year...We're planning on winning."

It's tough to beat LeBron plus the subconscious minds of the refs, who try to get it right, but after all these years have King James on the brain. But, after all the constant fuss and drama in Cleveland all season, I'll go with the Pacers. As every NBA exec beats their head against their office wall.  

That's it for this week. Thanks for all your fine questions. We've got one of those glued-to-the-big-screen weeks in NBA, NHL and NBA ahead.

The Skins draft? At No. 13, it's hard to get much bang for the pick by trading down. But it's hard to find a player who's still on the board who's a transformative force.

In the last dozen drafts, there has only been one monster player picked at No. 13 -- the great DT Aaron Donald who has already made first-team All-Pro three times and four Pro Bowls. None of the other 11 picks at No. 13 has been a first-team All-Pro. Only two have made a Pro Bowl. They best was, ironically, former Skin Brian Orakpo, who's made three pro bowls. Only one other No. 13 pick has made one pro bowl -- Sheldon Richardson.

Expect to get a useful starting player. Don't expect him to change the trajectory of the Skins franchise. Though, from now until the draft, all you will hear is how so-and-so is a "Future Hall of Famer."

Has Snyder given complete control of the Redskins to Allen? It seems in years past, a player like Bryant would have been at Redskins Park the day after his release.

Dez would be a perfect fit.

Give him shoulder pads, but issue straight jackets to everybody else who has to deal with him.

Boz, Have the early season starts of the Nats (bad) and Mets (good) reset your take on the NL East? To my amateur eyes, the Mets look like a playoff team if they can remain somewhat healthy (a big if, particularly with injury-prone pitchers and a roster where most key regulars are over 30).

You have spotted a major issue -- the "if."

I'd be very slow to judge this race. Once a pitcher has a serious are injury, or more than one, there is a tendency to continue to get injured. The long season maximizes the chances of that.

On the other hand, once a pitcher has shown he is extremely durable, his career tends to continue that way until age robs him of his stuff. But arm injuries are not his problem.

For example, Maddox, Glavine and Smoltz pitched about 60 seasons in the big league. Smoltz missed a year with TJ surgery, went to the bullpen, then came back to starting. 

On the Nats, knock on wood, Scherzer, Gonzalez and Roark have never missed significant time with a major injury. Strasburg has, but he's now in that period when he's fully mature and fairly healthy; nobody knows the average number of years for a "new elbow" but some guess 8 years.

This is the important year when the Mets find out how many of their damaged pitchers can really come back -- like Strasburg did -- and string together a number of excellent years. 

6 games back and facing a series in New York where they could go 9 games back, or shrink the deficit to 3, before going to LA & SF, what would you say constitutes a successful road trip? My own view would be that they stop the bleeding and return to DC in relatively the same shape that they left (6 games back). A poor showing could mean they would be trying to claw back for months. Yes, I know it's early to be watching the standings, but I don't think the Nats can afford to keep digging themselves a giant hole with the Mets looking better than advertised.

Normally, considering the tough opponents and the long  mileage, I'd say 4-5. Then regroup from ~11-14.

But are the Mets going to stay red hot? That's why you never want to get six games behind in April -- because, to a degree, you let the arc of your season fall under the control of another team's super-hot first month.

The most important game of the series with the Mets may be getting a rain-out tonight to avoid Hellickson-DeGrom as a starting point. Then maybe you get a split with Gio, who pitches well vs Mets, and Roark, who is pitching well in general right now. At least the Mets, accidentally, had mercy and pitch Syndergaard on Sunday.

After all the dull regular-season games in recent years, I've got to say that my gut feeling is that, as a fan of the sport, I want to see both the Mets and Nats get healthy and stay healthy -- not 100% but normal health -- and then battle it out for 140+ more games. I can't get too many Thor-Max or Stras-deGrom duels. Gio-Matz ain't bad. And I'll sign up for all the Harvey-Roark match-ups you can give me.

Is Hellickson the 69-69 (career) guy or the >5.30 ERA guy of '17. The Nats waited and waited to see if any decent SP would be "left over" near the end of spring training. Hellickson was the best of the rest. This may be an interesting test of Nats scouting. There were a lot of similar arms/careers out there. They seemed pretty happy to get Hellickson. Now we find out how right or wrong they are.

WHY do they like Hellickson? I think it's because in April and May last year he started for the Phils against the Nats FOUR times by May 14th. Hellickson hung tough in all four games, despite giving up five home runs -- and the Phils won ALL FOUR games, 4-3, 4-2, 6-5, 4-3. No huge run support against an elite Nats lineup and his (inferior) team won 'em all. Also, two starts were in Phils bandbox park.

Might say "veteran with moxie and heart" to Rizzo.

Over all, 21 2/3 innings, eight runs allowed -- 3.32 ERA vs Nats.

Remember, Hellickson split '17 between two parks that should be death to a low-K pitcher like him -- Philly and Baltimore. (But he got hit pretty hard everywhere last year.)        

Tom, Great chat, as always. What was the last Dusty Baker-managed team, if any, that won as many games as his team did, in the year after he left? I bet they always won fewer, but I have not seen the data. Jim

Interesting. No pattern. SF won 97, 90, 95 in last  three years with Dusty, then 100 and 91 in first two years with (very good manager) Felippe Alou. Reds won 97, then 90 in Dusty's last two years, then flopped under Price to 76  then 64 wins. The Cubs fell on hard times (66-96) by Baker's last season. They improved to 85-77, then 97-64 under Piniella. Probably a lot of other case-by-case factors to consider.

One thing is for sure -- Dusty didn't stop good teams from winning a LOT of games. In 22 seasons, here are his best win totals in the 14 (!) seasons when he had 86-to-103 wins:

103, 97, 97, 97, 95, 95 (!), 91, 90, 90, 90 (!), 89, 89, 88, 86.

That's TEN 90-win seasons in 22 years. But never with the "automatic win" franchises with the most money -- like Yanks. He inherited a SF team that had gone 72-90 before they won 103 the NEXT year with Dusty and had a long run.

Like I always say, he was about four or five wins over 22 years from a HOF that would have included winning a World Series and two pennants. But he DIDN'T win those games (or his players didn't) and he ended up with a .532 percentage in regular season, but a 23-32 mark in the post-season games.

One of the most difficult things in sports is realizing that the things that got you through the regular season and into the playoffs don't necessarily work in the playoffs. I believe Bobby Cox, for example, would have won a couple more World Series with Toronto and Atlanta if he hadn't managed his playoff lineup the same way he managed his regular season lineup. We are starting to see this attitude change in baseball, especially with bullpens. But it's hard for teams to do, hard for us fans to see, and hard for coaches and managers to execute properly even if they know it. (To say nothing of, you know, the players who have to execute too.) It's exciting for the teams who win even though they "shouldn't," but frustrating for the ones who don't win even though they "should." Then again, that's why they have playoffs: to give someone other than the regular-season champion a chance to be the champion.

Good points.

... was 31 years ago this week. That started our pain and it still hasn't ended.

I was there. We closed all our computers, gave up and just watched the game. There were 500 un-called penalties in the OTs.

...I thought Wily Mo Pena was going to pinch hit! Your piece today identified the problem well, but wondering if you think there are any clear solutions? Sadly Robles' elbow precludes him from that discussion for the moment.

When Murphy -- the ex-Met Met-killer returns -- it will be a new chapter in the season, in the Nats view, almost regardless of the standings.

But I don't think that is going to be very soon. Martinez said yesterday that Murphy is going to spring training. Sometimes, that means a player will be in the lineup in 10 days or two weeks. But when asked how long, he said, "Like spring training." Well, for Mr. Optimistic, that hit me as Murphy-needs-to-start-from-zero and work up to MLB speed, almost like a player who reports around March 1.

So, I wouldn't be surprised if the Murphy return date is mid-May earliest to late-May latest, unless he has a setback. Lets guess May 15 and adjust from there. I was thinking it would be a little earlier. His return is a big deal. But his return at 100%, with no more injury to the knee, is a MUCH bigger deal.

That's IT. See you fine folks next week. Maybe SOMETHING good will happen. (Sometimes it does!) Thanks again.

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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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