It was the best of times; it was the worst of times. The Washington Nationals have ascended the heights. They have one of the best records in the game. But the pitching staff that was masterful in the first five months of the season, had the wheels come off as the Cardinals scored 26 runs over the past three days.
Ross Detwiler and Edwin Jackson -- both pitchers with some history in St. Louis--looked as bad as any two Washington pitchers have all season long. In less than four innings, they managed to walk nine batters between them. Both starters are crucial components of the Nationals postseason chances.
Davey Johnson turned the bats around for the second half, and it fueled a remarkable surge, but this has been a team built around pitching. The staff that had the best statistical footprint in the game until recently cannot afford to fail as the calendar turns a page to October. Only Jordan Zimmermann and Gio Gonzalez have maintained their same consistency through out the season. As good as they have been , the Nationals are going to need Detwiler, Jackson and Lannan to step up their games if Washington is to go deep into the playoffs.
The team that struggled to score runs behind Zimmermann and others in the first half has been prodigious banging them out for the past three months. There have been no slackers. The veterans have hardly had to show the way for the young players.
The most impressive play has come from Bryce Harper whose level of play has risen as the pressure gage of the pennant race has risen, In the last week he has hit nearly .500 with three home runs and clutch hits that are too numerous to recount. His batting average that had fallen to .247 in August has risen by more than twenty points and he may yet match Tony Conigliaro’s single season home run mark for 19-year olds--24 when Tony C was a 19-year old rookie.
There is no one -- Harper among them -- who is concerned at this juncture about individual accomplishments. Although the focus is on the bottom line and righting the ship in the next three days, there may be one individual in the clubhouse whose individual performance may matter more than any other.
Johnson has kept the Nationals loose and easy, playing hard every day of this season. They have maintained a belief in their invulnerability through out short losing streaks several times in the past months. Davey steered them through each small crisis and the team emerged stronger until these last two weeks when they have yet to pull together against some of the strongest opposition they have had all season.
Every team the Nationals have played since being swept by the Braves in Atlanta not only has a winning record, but each has been fighting in their own right for a spot in the post-season. The competition will only get better in the postseason.
There are three games to go against the Phillies, who now have been eliminated from any hopes of the playoffs. They would be more than happy, however, to upset the apple cart for the Washington Nationals. And that is why Johnson needs to reach deep into his bag of managerial tricks for one last one. Whether it is his unparalleled wit, his grab bag of one-liners, or whatever stories of Gippers past he has stored up for those special moments; he may need them to ready his troops for October baseball.
As important as Davey Johnson may be in the next week or so, Washington Nationals fans have a responsibility as well. This is a historically good team. They will emerge at the end of the season with as many wins as almost any team in the long succession of teams dating back to 1901--that’s as far as I am going.
In St. Louis and Philadelphia the past few days there have been crowds of 40,000 plus fans making noise. Washington is one of the largest metro areas in the country and there should be sell out crowds for these next few games. They are of unique stature in the long story of baseball in DC. This team deserves a loud and enthusiastic crowd behind them who appreciate what they have done this season, who can demonstrate without equivocation our appreciation.
See you at the park. Go Nats!
Ted Leavengood is author of “Clark Griffith, The Old Fox of Washington Baseball,” released last June. He serves as managing editor of the popular Seamheads.com national baseball blog and co-hosts with Chip Greene the “Outta the Parkway” Internet radio show. His work appears here as part of MASNsports.com’s effort to welcome guest bloggers to our little corner of the Internet. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.