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Friday, June 21, 2013
For Nationals, it isn't 2012 anymore

By Jayson Stark
ESPN.com

PHILADELPHIA -- Maybe they thought that every season would go just like their magic carpet ride of 2012.

Maybe they thought that when a team essentially goes wire-to-wire once, it's destined to do it again.

Maybe they thought that Bryce Harper could splatter himself against every outfield fence in America and never get hurt … that Stephen Strasburg would throw 240 innings and put all the questions to rest … that Davey Johnson's "World Series or bust" mission statement was going to turn into just another joyride down South Capitol Street.

But if that's what the Washington Nationals thought, even in the back of their minds, real life had a message it needed to deliver, loud and clear:

Every year is different. Winning is hard work. And nothing is guaranteed. Not in baseball. Not in life.

"Last year, we cruised," right fielder Jayson Werth found himself saying this week, reflectively. "You don't learn how to win that way. So when you get into those big games in September and in the playoffs, when you've led wire-to-wire and you cruised into the finish line, you never really had to work for anything. But [this year] I feel like, if we're going to win it, we're going to have to work for a lot."

Yeah, you don't need to consult the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics to discern that the work is piling up for these Nationals, all right. Just check out the standings.

"

Jayson Werth We're still the same team that everyone picked to win the World Series. And now everyone's down on us. So maybe that's good.

" -- Nationals RF Jayson Werth

More than 70 games into their big 2013 World Series or Bust season, the Nationals are a .500 team, six games out of first place in the NL East and even 6.5 games out of the second wild-card spot. So there won't be any cruising this year.

The much-debated "Strasburg shutdown of 2012" still hangs over them, at least in the minds of some people in this sport. So does the way last season ended: with one of the all-time October heartbreakers, a Game 5 National League Division Series loss they might never forget.

"You look at what Washington had a chance to do last year," one NL executive said this week. "And now they may not get back there [to the postseason] to get a chance to do it again. It makes you realize you can't take anything for granted, so you've got to go for it when you've got a chance."

Another exec wondered, "Is there any team after the Strasburg decision that has more incentive to get back to the playoffs than the Nationals?"

You can make that case, all right. But that, of course, is not the way the Nationals see it.

"I haven't played the 'what-if' game," general manager Mike Rizzo said of that intrepid Strasburg decision. And he doesn't talk the talk of a man who ever plans to play it.

He also sees no signs that the painful final chapter of last season -- when a 6-0 Game 5 lead over the Cardinals melted into the October mist -- has anything to do with what's unfolded since.

"I didn't see it in spring training. I don't see it early on in the season -- that hangover," Rizzo said. "I think that game was behind us shortly after it took place."

Bryce Harper
The Nationals just aren't the same team without Bryce Harper in the lineup.

Not that the players who occupy his clubhouse don't vividly remember the anguish of that night. "It's part of the fuel," pitcher Drew Storen said.  "It's something that made us hungry at the beginning of the year to go out and show people, and get to the World Series and win it because of that. But if we're thinking about that now, that's not a good sign."

Yes, to be honest, they have a lot more pressing issues to think about now, because this season has turned into "a grind," Storen said, practically from day one.

The Nationals of 2013 haven't put their Opening Day lineup on the field since April 14. The only starting position player who hasn't missed time is shortstop Ian Desmond. And the last time Werth and Harper started in the same game was May 2 -- a ridiculous 43 games ago. That's all taken its toll.

They lost Strasburg for 2½ weeks, just as he seemingly was starting to dial it in. They've been without Harper, by far their most productive hitter, for most of the past five weeks. And they've already used 37 different players (tied for the fifth most in the whole sport) and 19 pitchers (also tied for fifth most).

These are the things you never see coming when the palm trees are swaying and everyone you know is picking you to win the World Series. But real life doesn't care what you saw coming in March.

Real life has many lessons to teach. And now, apparently, it's the Nationals' turn to learn those lessons -- and see how they can use this humbling experience for the better.

"When you've got a young team with tons of expectations, sometimes those expectations can get in the way of what it takes to win," said Werth, the oldest and most experienced player on this roster, even at age 34. "You can almost feel like you're entitled to win, if that makes sense. You don't feel like you have to win. You feel like you've already won, because everybody's giving it to you."

"

We have a tendency, offensively, to be a little too passive, and Bryce [Harper] is a very aggressive hitter. He's a dynamic player. And with the energy he has, he kind of sparks our team.

" -- manager Davey Johnson

He looked around the room, at the high-profile names that hang atop every locker.

"A lot of these guys were first-round picks who got to the big leagues pretty easily," he said. "So I feel like this, in a sense, is almost good for us. Will that lead to a championship? I don't know. But I know we've got some serious talent. We're still the same team that everyone picked to win the World Series. And now everyone's down on us. So maybe that's good."

But what's not so good is that they're now 72 games into this season, and they haven't found a way to play over the injuries and the challenges -- especially offensively.

Last year's Nationals finished 10th in the major leagues in runs scored and eighth in OPS. They hit the second-most home runs in the National League and bopped the third-most extra-base hits.

But this year? Who are these guys? They're 28th in the majors in runs scored and 28th in OPS. The only team in baseball with a lower on-base percentage is the offensively challenged Marlins. Just seven teams in America have hit fewer home runs than the Nationals (64). And they've already played 31 games in which they've scored two runs or fewer. Only the Marlins have played more games like that.

Yeah, this team is banged up. We mentioned that. But all the injuries don't explain a teamwide funk like this, said their new center fielder, Denard Span.

"Everyone in our lineup pretty much has underachieved," Span said. "There's no explanation for it, really, other than just, we need to do better."

Well, there is one good explanation for it: No Bryce Harper.

In the 27 games Harper has missed since his knee flared up last month, his team has scored one run or none in seven of them and three runs or fewer in 16 of them. They're 10-17 in those games -- as opposed to 26-19 when he has played.

That tells you all you need to know about how much this guy already means to his franchise at 20 years old. But it also says something about this team, said one NL scout, "that they can't wait for a 20-year-old to get back and get them started again."

That 20-year-old is finally making significant progress in his bout with left-knee bursitis, though; he could be back as soon as next week. And his reappearance can't come soon enough for his biggest fan, the manager.

Davey Johnson's heart still thumps a little harder when he reminisces about the way Harper arrived in the big leagues last year, as a teenager, and injected his whole lineup with a jolt of caffeine. Now the manager wouldn't be shocked to see Harper's return this year energize this group in much the same way.

Stephen Strasburg
Stephen Strasburg (3-6, 2.50) had a stint on the disabled list earlier this month with an oblique injury.

"We have a tendency offensively to be a little too passive, and Bryce is a very aggressive hitter," Johnson said. "He's a dynamic player. And with the energy he has, he kind of sparks our team. … Early on last year, we were more passive. Then when Harper got here, we got more aggressive. So we went from a .235-hitting club to a .260 club, and that's why we won all those games. I can honestly say that Bryce helped get everyone more aggressive."

But Harper's absence isn't this offense's only issue. Scouts covering the Nationals also believe they've missed the power and presence of Michael Morse (traded to Seattle) more than they believed they would.

"They miss his home run potential," said one NL scout. "He's left a big hole. Without him in there, hitting behind [Adam] LaRoche, something's missing. Last year, when they had Werth and Harper hitting 1-2, they were scary. They used to have speed at the top, power in the middle and speed at the bottom. They don't have that anymore."

What they have had, though, is a newfound identity as a team other clubs seem to approach with a little extra fire and focus. And those clubs say the Nationals brought that on themselves by openly talking about their win-the-World-Series ambitions.

"You look at the best teams in this league -- the Giants, the Cardinals, the Braves -- and you don't hear them talking about it," said the same NL scout. "They don't say, 'Look at us. We're really good.' They just go out and beat you. When you start talking, you paint that bull's-eye right on your back. And I know the kind of effect that has. I know we were always aware of that stuff when I played. So I'm not sure how you measure it. But I know there are teams that compete against the Nationals that really want to beat their butts."

OK, so it was Johnson who said right out loud last winter that this season was "World Series or bust." But Johnson's response to the people who think he never should have uttered those words is exactly what you'd expect: So what?

"I just said what everyone was thinking," Johnson said. "I've always been a firm believer that if you don't think you can do something, you don't have much chance of doing it. I just said, if we do the things we're capable of doing, we can win this thing. So this being my last year, I just thought 'World Series or bust' was not a big stretch. That's all."

There's no way to quantify whether any of that talk, or its ripple effects, has had anything to do with how this team has managed to dig its six-game hole. But how this group got here doesn't matter much anyway. What matters is where it goes from here.

And the truth is, the health picture is brightening. And the Washington Nationals have plenty of time to prove they're the team so many of us geniuses in the prediction business picked to win it all just three months ago.

"To be honest, I'm not upset about where we're at," Werth said. "I feel good about where we're at. I don't mind playing from behind. In some ways, that's actually where I'd rather be. I like that. I like being in September, and knowing every game you play is a must-win game.

"You know those teams I played on in Philly, in '07 and '08, we were seven games back in September. And I feel like that's where we learned how to win. Those teams knew how to win. That's what made us so good. And I think that's where we gained that knowledge, by coming from behind and being in a situation where you couldn't lose any games. So I don't mind our spot right now. I really don't."

This might not have been the script the Nationals would have written for themselves for the first 2½ months of the season. But there are 3½ months ahead for them to craft the rest of that script. And that, Johnson said, represents "an opportunity -- an opportunity to re-establish who we are."

Are they really the team so many people thought they were beneath those Florida palm trees? Well, the talent is there. The phenom is coming back. The ace is off the disabled list. And the Braves are still within sight.

"So you know what?" said Jayson Werth. "We'll find out soon enough."