Coming off of 2012's fantastic season and disappointing playoffs, Washington, DC area sports fans, and even national baseball writers, talked about how the 2013 Washington Nationals should be far and away the best team in the National League. I was among those who subscribed to this, almost blindly, as it seemed to be a foregone conclusion that DC's baseball team would compete for a World Series title this season. Then, something happened. They started playing games.
I posted a mild rant on Twitter following Sunday's annihilation and sweep at the hands of the very talented Los Angeles Dodgers, which drew far less anger from fans than I expected. I didn't let loose, and my words weren't because of a bad 9-2 loss or a series sweep, even after entering the All-Star Break with a week that was nearly as bad as this weekend. This was a conversation that's been coming since April.
I let myself get caught up in the words written by colleagues, and the words written and spoken by those on the national stage who were convinced that Davey Johnson's final season combined with the amalgam of talent present from the top to the bottom of the 25-man roster would be enough to boost this team. It wasn't outrageous to do that, but the what-ifs were never really explored, by me or anyone else. And the what-ifs have killed the Nats.
-What if two-thirds of the Opening Day lineup all spend time, some significant time, on the disabled list?
-What if Danny Espinosa's strikeout struggles last year come to a head, and he's unable to perform? And what if it's because of his ailing shoulder?
-What if Drew Storen is unable to recover from the disaster that was the ninth inning of the 2012 NLDS?
-What if the bench players who had career years in 2012, Steve Lombardozzi, Tyler Moore, Chad Tracy, and Roger Bernadina, regress to the mean… and then some?
-What if the magic that Davey Johnson brought to a young team that no one expected anything from in 2012 couldn't be there for a team that had all eyes on them in 2013?
I could go on and on. And even if we asked all of the what-if questions we could possibly think of, would we really have an answer to why the Nationals are playing so far below expectations? I'm not sure we would.
All I do know is they are playing below expectations. Through 98 games, a team that many expected to represent the NL in the World Series is two games below .500 and just three games ahead of the fourth-place New York Mets in the NL East standings. The starting pitching has been great, the bullpen has been good but has struggled at times, and the offense has been outrageously inconsistent, and occasionally, downright abhorrent.
In any other season, when you have a team that has played so far below expectations, and the All-Star Break has since passed, teams almost always do one thing. They fire their manager. Davey Johnson, who proclaimed "World Series or bust" to start this season, has been unable to do anything to get a lineup with significant talent to produce, which, quite simply, is his job. You probably can't blame him for the guys not hitting, but across sports, when teams don't meet expectations, managers and head coaches get fired. You can't fire every player, so you hold the coaches accountable.
To be very clear, there are still a whole lot of positives to draw from this season. Ian Desmond has proven last season wasn't a fluke, and that he's among the game's best shortstops offensively and defensively. The Nats pitching staff has three pitchers at the top of the rotation that have proven they can be aces, and not one of them has entered his late-20s yet. Anthony Rendon, if he can stay healthy, is a force to be reckoned with, and Bryce Harper is can be an MVP-caliber player. Jayson Werth, now almost half way done with his very expensive contract, is having one of the best seasons of his career, despite injuries. Tyler Clippard is falling far under the radar despite posting numbers similar to his All-Star season. There are many more things to list here, but you get the idea. Not all is bad.
But when you expect so much from a team that has fallen short of what we thought they'd be, you miss out on the good stories. So this is what I propose. As fans, we change the expectations. If the Nats do, in fact, fall short of the post-season, there will be plenty of opportunities to explore what went wrong come the offseason. But for now, let's just enjoy baseball like we did before we knew this team could be a winner.
For years before the Nats became a competitive team, fans got excited by seeing young players succeed and by enjoying the little things from an MLB game. Maybe, just maybe, for this season, it's time to remember how awesome it is to just have a baseball team in DC, which didn't exist until just eight years ago.
It's still possible, though it's become increasingly unlikely, that the Nationals could make what would be a miraculous comeback. They could post around a .650 winning percentage between now and September 29 and find a way into the playoffs. But in order to do that, they'd have to have a stretch of games at least as good as their best stretch from last season. I don't know about you, but I haven't seen any inkling of that being possible yet this year.
The point of me writing this isn't to be negative; it's to be realistic. It's also to say that when you start truly enjoying baseball, not comparing records and box scores, you get to the root of why baseball is great. When you enjoy baseball, you may not know your team's record, or how many games back they are in your division, but you know who made the great play last night. And you know who threw that gem to shutout a good team.
It's time to start watching baseball for the process, for the improvements, for the day-to-day successes. Stop looking toward the end result regardless of how the team got there. You're setting yourself up for disappointment.