NEW YORK - Baseball is a sport primarily focused on the individual matchups: a pitcher facing a batter, a batter trying to get a hit against a pitcher. It’s not 11-on-11 like football, or even five against five like in basketball.
But similar to football, units of the team must play well for the entire team to succeed. If you have a football team and the offense and defense are good, but the special teams continue to fumble when receiving punts, then it is not a complete team that will win many games.
For the Nationals, the offense, the starting pitching, the bench and even (most of the time) the fielding have been good in 2017 as they raced out to a big lead in the National League East.
But the one unit that has struggled is the bullpen as the Nats search for a shutdown closer.
The clubhouse has remained strong behind the relievers, despite their difficulties, especially the starting pitchers. Five times this season, the Nats have lost a lead they had in the ninth inning. One would believe that the starters might harbor some animosity for having their quality starts and leads turn into no decisions.
So far that has not been the case with the Nationals.
Right-hander Stephen Strasburg had the most clear-cut thoughts on the situation last week after Matt Albers struggled in the late going against the Braves. Albers allowed a three-run homer by Tyler Flowers in the ninth, finishing off a comeback for the Braves in an 11-10 Nats loss. The comeback wasted a late 9-6 Nats advantage.
Strasburg said afterward that he wasn’t frustrated by the bullpen’s struggles, but instead said the clubhouse supported those guys as they tried to battle through uneven outings.
“It’s tough, we have a lot of young guys in the bullpen right now,” Strasburg said. “I think everybody in here, we’re all pulling for them, we all believe in them. I just hope that they worry about what goes on in the clubhouse and not what really what’s said outside the clubhouse.
“I’ve been around long enough to know that the way it works is they build you up to bring you down. It’s easy to kick a guy when he’s down. I’m just going to try to be a great teammate to them and support them through thick and thin.”
A close-knit clubhouse, all 25 men pulling on the same rope, can be as critical as any talented section of the team. It is a philosophy manager Dusty Baker preaches to his clubs.
“It’s a must. I demand it,” Baker said. “Big time. Because everybody is going to have their time to shine and their time to mess up. Sometimes it’s your pitching, sometimes it’s your defense.
“Usually pitching and defense go hand in hand. You start giving away extra outs. And during that streak when our bullpen wasn’t pitching very well, we were playing bad defense, making three errors a game. That allows the extra big hitters go come up when they wouldn’t come up a fifth time. Because when I was looking up at the board one day, they got everybody up five to six at-bats. ...
“It’s a team and you got to stick together as a team. When one is struggling, like I said they said, ‘What are going to do?’ We’re going to score some more runs.”
Strasburg made his comments about backing the bullpen. Every time left-hander Gio Gonzalez pitches, the first thing he does postgame is thank his catcher and his defense. Baker nodded his head when told of those thoughts from his starting pitchers.
“That’s how I like my guys to think,” Baker said. “That’s how I like them to talk. Championship teams don’t point fingers.”
Baker referenced the 1970s Reds he faced as an example of what a confident roster must do if one part is struggling to match the other four facets of the team.
“Look at the Big Red Machine,” Baker said, who played for the Braves and Dodgers at that time. “They had a great bullpen and a great offense, great defense, but they didn’t have very good starting pitching.
“I remember one day I was on first base and Fredie Norman was on the mound. I’m talking to Tony (Perez). We had scored four or five in the first inning and Tony said, ‘Well, I guess the game is even now.’ How are we even when you down five to nothing? That was awesome (laughs) And he said it so matter of fact.”
Baker believes one solution to the bullpen’s current struggles is to turn to a team strength - in this case, a potent offense - to make up for the weakness. The Nationals still have around 45 days before the trade deadline to search for a shutdown closer.
And back to that quote from the Braves game: Strasburg talked about the us-against-the-world mentality. He said it was important for the team to not let outside influences warp the belief they have in their teammates. Baker endorsed that line of thinking in his team.
“That’s what (Hall of Fame and three-time Super Bowl champion coach) Bill Walsh told me when I first took this job,” Baker said. “(Walsh) said, ‘Dusty, no matter what, whether it’s a strike or others talk about this or that, no matter what they tell them, just tell them to stick together, play together.’ That’s what I’ve always believed.”
Extending the philosophy even further, Baker believes in employing all 25 men on the roster. For the most part, it is usually so veterans like Jayson Werth and Ryan Zimmerman can get some rest during a 162-game season when you have confidence your club has a great opportunity to play well into October.
Now this isn’t community T-ball or rec league basketball - these players are paid professionals of course - but Baker’s thought that every player on the club is crucial to the race for a division title has value.
“That’s why I believe in playing everybody,” Baker said. “Like in Asian culture, the circle is not complete unless you believe the lesser person is equal to the greater, whomever that person is. That’s what I believe.
“When I was kid, I was always the captain of the basketball team. There was this kid that never gets to play or never gets chosen. In my heart, I’d always pick that last kid to play on the team. I could get all the rebounds and score all the points, but I felt better feeding that kid and then get two points and keep feeding him than for me to score all the points. Even if it hurt the team for a couple of possessions, give me the ball and I’ll get the lead back. That was my attitude.”