Marty Niland: Nats must learn to overcome their own failures - and success

A baseball team can’t win on talent alone. It also takes discipline, maturity and courage, qualities that key members of the Nationals seemed to be lacking against the Chicago Cubs this weekend.

In dropping games Saturday and Sunday to the last-place team in the National Legaue Central, the Nats’ 24-year-old pitching phenom and 70-year-old manager both showed they have something to learn about handling both adversity and success.

Stephen Strasburg has shown plenty of talent since the Nats drafted him first overall in 2009, but he didn’t display much maturity or poise on Saturday against the Cubs. After Ryan Zimmerman’s fifth-inning error marred the two-hit gem he seemed to be spinning, Strasburg pitched like a petulant Little Leaguer. He dropped his head and slumped his shoulders when he should have been standing tall to intimidate the bottom of the Chicago order, and he stalked around the infield and glowered into the dugout when he should have been backing up home plate on a throw from the outfield.

Strasburg had every right to be upset that a veteran like Zimmerman would boof a routine throw that should have ended the inning. But he had no right to let it go to his head and let the game get out of hand, allowing the team to get into a 4-0 hole that it could not overcome.

A pitcher with Strasburg’s talent should be able to escape a two-out, one-on situation unscathed. But talent is nothing without the temperament to back it up, and Strasburg showed that while his arm may indeed have no-hit stuff, he needs to keep his head in the game if he’s ever going to live up to that potential.

It’s not just youth and inexperience that lead to bad decisions, though. On Sunday, Davey Johnson, the oldest and second-most experienced manager in the major leagues, decided that Gio Gonzalez might not be able to hold a 1-0 lead after allowing just two hits on 86 pitches over seven innings.

Never mind that Gonzalez was the most rested member of the Nats staff, having last pitched one week previously. And never mind that in that May 5 start, Gonzalez had overcome one of the worst first innings that Nats had seen all season. After Bryce Harper was tossed from the game for arguing with the umpire, Gonzalez surrendered a home run on the first pitch he threw and then loaded the bases, Gonzalez got out of the jam without allowing another run and went on to win the game.

None of that stopped the manager who’s become known as one of the pioneers of situational reliving from lifting Gonzalez for a pinch hitter, hoping that Chad Tracy would spark an offensive uprising that would finish off the Cubs. Instead, Tracy struck out to lead off a 1-2-3 inning by Kyuji Fujikawa. Then Drew Storen, Johnson’s choice out of the bullpen, promptly allowed the leadoff batter to hit safely, then come around to score the tying run in the Nats’ 2-1 loss. Kurt Suzuki’s freak throwing error on a double steal allowed the winning run to score, but the damage had already been done, courtesy of Johnson’s lack of faith in his starting pitcher.

The Nats will make plenty more mistakes and have their share of successes over the next few months, as the ups and downs of the long season take their toll. They will be ultimately measured, though, by how they handle those situations, as Rudyard Kipling wrote, “If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster and treat those two imposters just the same ...”

Marty Niland blogs about the Nationals for D.C. Baseball History. His thoughts on the Nationals will appear here as part of’s season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our site. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.

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