On the highway, speed kills. In baseball, speed brings life.
The Nationals got a glimpse of that before Trea Turner went on the disabled list with a strained hamstring. Turner’s expected to return this week, and when he does, he and Adam Eaton will be the fuel that makes the Nationals’ lineup almost impossible to defend.
Whether it is Turner-Eaton or Eaton-Turner at the top of the order, when they get on base together, they give opposing teams headaches with constant threats to steal - and double steal. They distract infielders, create holes and force pitchers to rush and into mistakes.
“It’s not easy for the defense when those guys are on base,’’ Miami manager Don Mattingly said. “Speed is not easy to find. It’s not easy to defend.’‘
Teams defined by game-altering speed don’t come around that often. Nationals manager Dusty Baker brought up the 1980s St. Louis Cardinals, thinking about the 1985 World Series team that had Vince Coleman stealing 110 bases, Willie McGee 46, Andy Van Slyke 34 and Tommy Herr and Ozzie Smith 31 each.
When Nationals catcher Matt Wieters thinks of 1-2 speed guys, he talked about the New York Yankees’ Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury.
“You want to keep those guys off base,’’ Wieters said. “If not, pitchers have to throw over to first base, keep them close. They have to slide-step.’‘
Overall, the Nationals’ lineup is reminiscent of the 1992-93 Toronto Blue Jays, teams that won consecutive World Series, first against Atlanta and then against Philadelphia.
In 1992, the Blue Jays had Devon White (37 steals) and Roberto Alomar (49) setting the table for John Olerud, Joe Carter, Dave Winfield and Candy Maldonado. The next season, the Blue Jays added Rickey Henderson to White and Alomar. The middle of the order had Olerud, Carter and Paul Molitor, who replaced Winfield as the DH.
In 1993, Carter hit .254-33- 121, Olerud .363-24- 107 and Molitor .332-22- 111. Phillies coach Mickey Morandini was the Phillies’ second baseman in 1993. He knows how difficult it was to play defense against a lineup of players who combined speed and high on-base percentages with better-than-average power.
“They were running all over the place,’’ Morandini said.
Morandini says the key to beating speed is to keeping players with speed off base. If not, a pitcher has to alter deliveries to keep to disrupt a speed guy’s timing.
“He has to hold the ball, keeping the runner from picking up consistent rhythms in his delivery,’’ Morandini said.
The best example of how speed can take over a series came when Henderson played for Oakland in 1989. Henderson, the all-time king of steals, had a .609 on-base percentage and stole eight bases in five games as the Athletics beat Toronto in the American League Championship Series. In one game, Henderson stole second and third consecutively in two different at-bats.
Since moving to D.C. in 2005, the Nationals’ best speed was in 2014, when Denard Span (31 steals) and Anthony Rendon (17) were at the top of the order. But, consider the fact this Nationals lineup has a steady stream of on-base percentage guys who run effectively.
Last year, Eaton (with the White Sox), Turner, Daniel Murphy, Bryce Harper, Rendon and Jayson Werth stole a combined 90 bases. The on-base percentage for those six guys ranged from .348 to .390. Like the Blue Jays in their championship years, the Nationals lineup is built for a deep postseason run because it can wear down top-notch pitching with grind-it-out at-bats.
Will the Nationals break their team record of 763 runs in a season? Will Turner approach 60 steals, given he had 33 in 73 games last season? Will Eaton break his career-best of 21 steals in a season? Will Turner and Eaton compete for the league lead in triples?
“One-two speed is hard to find,’’ Baker said. “Speed period is hard to find.’‘
That’s true, but the Nationals have done a good job getting it.