Saturday, August 06, 2005


If at any point it sounds like I'm droning, please stop reading. I won't know the difference.

Lamentably, it is becoming quite apparent that
Thursday night's joy was but a taste of glory and not a resumption thereof. That the Washington Nationals are still only one game back in the National League Wild Card standings may obscure our view a touch, by providing us lingering hope of what may be if only things would right themselves; however, there's a harsh reality for which we must be prepared to cope:

This team could completely fall apart, and it could get ugly before it's over.

If you haven't verbalized it yet, then you feel it inside of you, nudging and clawing at your baseball fan's soul, breaking the will to believe that a series sweep, a six-game winning streak, and a ten-and-two stretch are all imminent. Heck, I've said the Nats' postseason chances are over, and I still feel that way---both the hope and the realization that the hope will have to go unrequited. You probably deal with the same dissonance; it's part of being both a fan and an intelligent being.

It's not just us, internet dimwits, who feel this way, though. Why else would both Loverro and Boswell bust out the "We're just happy the Nats are here" column around the turn of August---why not on, say, September 26, when a spunky Nats team is finally eliminated from postseason contention? Because there won't be a September 26, that's why.

And it's not just writers and rooters---professional and amateur alike---who feel this way, though. Frank Robinson is just as wary, just as hopeful, but just as resigned. That's why he
called a team meeting for before tonight's game. Robinson is down to just a few arrows in the quiver, team chemistry and town hall meetings:

According to a source, Robinson called the meeting because he is concerned that the chemistry is deteriorating. Some in the organization are concerned that the players are not playing smart baseball and are too concerned about who should be in the lineup. Robinson pulled his big black chair in the locker room around two minutes before 4:00 p.m. ET and started the session.
While everyone was closed mouth about the meeting, the theme was trying to get back to their winning ways like they did in the first half. The players did most of the talking. "The more the better. I want everyone here to participate," Robinson said. "It was a good, positive meeting. Some good points were made."

I'm neither Svrluga nor Svengali, but I perceive Robinson is losing his team. (The perception is perhaps enhanced by the first
rumors of a big-time name interested in DC as a managerial stop, though I pray the particular rumor does not become any more than that.) In the meantime, Robinson's team keeps losing, both last night and tonight, rendering a memory wipe on the thoughts that Thursday's rousing performance had marked a turning point.

This is a team:

---> still beset by
injuries (even to the first base coach, for crying out loud!);
---> with a frustrated and, frankly, crazy
guy who has appointed himself as a team leader (to say nothing of an eccentric staff ace); and,
---> that is suffering through an extended period of
thoroughly frustrating losses.

It's gotten bad---21 losses in 29 games---but it could well get even worse. It could get ugly.


The Nats are not the only team bemoaning Cruel Fate and the one-run losses it heralds.
Joe Posnanski of the Kansas City Star explores the strange birds called the Kansas City Royals, who have stunk in one-run contests every year since 1999; they're 71 games below .500 in one-run games during that period, which is so far behind all the other teams in Major League Baseball that characterizing them as "last" in the category is wholly insufficient:

Oh, there are all sorts of oddities when it comes to close games. The 1959 Go Go White Sox had one of the great one-run records in baseball history. They were 35-15. They went to the World Series. The very next year, with essentially the same team, the White Sox had a losing record in one-run games. This happens a lot. The wind changes direction. Luck swings. Close calls alternate. Every single team in baseball has had at least one year since 1999 with a winning record in one-run games. Every team but one. Your Kansas City Royals.

In a different sense, the Nats are just as odd. To borrow Posnanski's metapor, the wind has changed direction with startling swiftness. It is as though a tsunami slammed into Japan, came to a complete (and, for you balk cultist umpires out there, discernible) stop, cranked on the "beep-beep-beep" sound of a semi- going in reverse, floored it, and then struck San Francisco moments later. According to
Rocket Bill's notes before tonight's game, the Nats were "the first team in Major League history to win as many as 12 straight one-run games and lose as many as 12 consecutive one-run games." Really? We'll take his word for it.

That's right, gang: Just a short time ago---from June 3 to July 5, to be exact---the Nats had won 12 consecutive one-run decisions; from July 9 to August 5, however, they lost 12 straight one-run contests.

To quote John Cusack's character in Grosse Point Blank, upon discovering (long after the audience suspected, of course) that he had been hired to kill his long-lost girlfriend's father, "Dumb [bleepin'] luck."

Wellllllll, maybe. I don't know. I certainly can't explain it; but, for old time's sake, I'll note those 12 consecutive nail-biting conquests:

Date Opponent   Score
6/3 Florida 3-2
6/7 Oakland 2-1
6/9 Oakland 4-3
6/11 Seattle 2-1
6/12 Seattle 3-2
6/15 LAA of A 1-0
6/22 Pittsburgh 5-4
6/28 Pittsburgh 2-1
6/29 Pittsburgh 3-2
7/1 Chicago 4-3
7/3 Chicago 5-4
7/5 New York 3-2

Those were the days, weren't they? We could try to sully their memory by noting that:

a) they were mainly against mediocre or outright poor teams; and,
b) they were marked by the Nats scoring just enough to win; but then,

we'd also have to (or prefer to) figure that among those poor teams, the A's were actually a very good team that just didn't read the message on the bulletin board yet and that, intuitively, more one-run games are going to be naturally low-scoring, anyway.

Generally speaking, "winning the close games" is one of those concepts that's open to varied interpretations, as Posnanski points out:

Baseball people argue all the time about one-run games. How do you win them? How do you lose them? Some say that one-run games come down to the strategies of the managers. Some say the key is the quality of your bullpen. Some say it’s about guts or getting the bunt down or doing all the little things right.
A lot of smart people think winning or losing by one run mostly comes down to luck.

And it's a funny thing: When the Nats were routinely winning the one-run games at such an incredible clip, the media that cover the Nats were quick to apply clean explanations for the success. Come to think of it, they were pretty much the ones provided in Posnanski's full paragraph above:

---> Frank Robinson's strategies (and leadership abilities) were maximizing the limited talent---especially offensive talent---on the team.
---> The bullpen was locked into shut-down mode, anchored by what some dubbed the "Big MAC" (Majewski-to-Ayala-to-Cordero) combination.
---> The team was "gutty" and "gritty" and played with all kinds of fire (think back to the Donnelly Game).
---> The team was fundamentally sound and played solid defense.

And I wouldn't suggest that the above qualities were not true, or at least greatly devoid of truth. But now the team has lost 13 consecutive one-run games---yes THIRTEEN, after tonight's loss. What has changed? Well, to an extent, all of that has changed. The Nats were not a seamless team, even when romping on a 26-6 spree; how many times did bunt and hit-and-run strategies fail, and we'd think they were winning in spite of themselves?

Now, in the main, they are quite deserving of their losses. Their play is sloppy and they have difficulty coming up with the big hit. The bullpen is not impervious, and the offense is horrible as opposed to slight yet opportunistic. Frobby's managing, if it has not changed qualitatively, at least seems tenuous as opposed to determined.

And, yes, the chemistry appears shaken. But then, what team in the midst of an 8-21 stretch is happy with itself?

There's a quirky aspect to all of this, you know. Scan back at Posnanski's "list of one-run explanations" and look at the last one: luck.

Now, when the Nats were winning the close games, "luck" was sort of a verboten explanation. Even I (and statheaded bloggers like me) bristled at the gall of it. To an extent, I think my (our) reaction was well-taken. The way I see it, "luck" is a catch-all, a b.s. dump, an explanation for people who don't follow the subject team closely or regularly. Sure, "luck" includes strange bounces, good and bad alike, as well as assorted random phenomena. But I think I've learned this season that "luck" is also a composite of very regular occurrences, some that work and some that don't. It's strategies that seize and strategies that go dry. It's injuries and healings. It's lost and found arm angles. It's, as it was tonight for the Nats' first run, starting a runner from first, who barely beats the turn at second, circumventing a double play and allowing the runner from third to score. "Luck" might not be as much an explanation as a truism.

That's why I don't bristle as much as the suggestion that the Nats were "winning lucky" earlier: it's a value-free assessment, not a moral judgment. It explains nothing and it explains everything. It is defined based on when you take the snapshot. Or so I've pondered.

Getting back to the strange development, though, if Mel Proctor's tone on MASN tonight is any indication, one-run games are only explicable when the team you are covering is winning. I'm sure Mel (of whom I have fond memories and hold admiration, I should note) is going through a downer of a month covering this team. With one exception, the losses are close and frustrating. Heck, if the team loses, it should be by a lot, so that you can break out the old vignettes. He and Brother Lo were great at that on the old Home Team Sports.

Well, tonight, Proctor's tone sure seemed to angle toward the "bad luck" explanation for all of these struggles. I just found it interesting that, aside from this, neither Proctor nor Ron Darling particularly scoured for a reason for the team's struggles in the close games. It just was, and it was beyond their comprehension. I'll bet that if the team runs off a few in a row on the plus side of one-run games, however, the light of explanation will shine through again.


So, to recap, what's the score? Fittingly, these days, it's like 3-2, with the Nats on the short end. More broadly, there's one game left with San Diego. Then it's off for the Road Trip From Hell(tm), which kicks off with three games at Houston, the wild card frontrunner by a single game.

Back in May and June, we were pleasantly surprised by what this team could do when faced with pressure and when faced with road trips. These days, one can be excused for not holding out confidence of a repeat; at the same time, the same person could be excused for holding out hope.

We know it's over, but we hope it's not: this is the curse of being a fan.

I'll tell you why they've been losing:

1. The bullpen was over-worked and went through a stretch where everybody was tired (though they look better now).

2. The team defense has gone way down, due to a combination of Vinny's knee, Cristian's head-case status, Vidro's return from the DL (although that's a tradeoff I'm willing to make), Johnson's DL stint (though obviously rectified now) and the trade for Sir Runs-With-A-Load-In-His-Britches.

Certainly, there have been a few games that can truly be ascribed to bad luck: hitters reaching base on a lot of bloop, broken-bat hits and swinging bunts. But mostly it's just been because the team stopped playing good defense; you can't do that when your margin for error is slim.
I agree. Combine that with the thin(ner) margin for error that goes along with even worse offense, generally speaking, and that's a recipe for frustrating losses instead of close shaves.
I always thought the reason we played in so many one-run games in June was because of Franks' bunting and hit-and-run strategies, which willfully kept the games close.

And now, with lineups like the one today, we should be happy to lose by one run.
Incredibly consistent pitching and poor hitting will get you one run games. Luck will generally determine the winner, but there's probably a hitting point where if you're at it, you win one-run games, if you get worse you lose one-run games (and if you get better you stop playing in a lot of one-run games)

The hitting got worse. July was hideous. August is no better.
that post(?) was long and contained many words
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