September 19, 2005

Good Isn't Good Enough

  • Padres 2, Nationals 1

Really, you could see this one coming. It's the logical hangover from Saturday night's extra-inning backbreaker. The Nats were beaten before the first pitch was thrown. The Padres got in their heads on Saturday, and by Sunday afternoon they were rearranging the furniture. Stubby pitched a gem, another short-rest scoreless outing, but when Goooz is the sum total of your offense, you have to expect to lose. And I believe the Nats did. They faced one of the few teams with a better bullpen, and choked. Counting from the ninth-inning Saturday, the Padres outscored the Nats 10-1 over the last 2 games.

Which leads me to today's reality check. The Nats aren't good enough to win the wild card. I'm not saying they don't deserve to win. In professional sports, where everyone draws a paycheck, no one deserves to win anything. Winning is earned on the field, not (as the Yankees would have you believe) in the payroll department. And I'm not saying the Nats aren't talented enough to win the wild card. Every team in the race is flawed, the Nats no more or less so. But good is more than talented. It's talent plus. Talent + health + luck + determination. The Nats have certainly gotten the short end of the health stick. And over the course of the season the luck has evened out dramatically. I think what's missing from this team is the will to win. Not the generic "We're winners, we're fighters, we are going to turn this thing around" rah-rah BS. The specific, moment-by-moment "I'm going to do exactly what I need to do in this situation" focus.

I can't count (though someone surely knows) the number of times the Nats have had a runner on third with less than two outs and failed to bring him home. Or the number of times there have been runners on first and second and our batters have been unable to get the bunt down. Or how many walks or HBPs our relievers have given up in tight games. In that sense I admire the way Livo pitches. On a 3-2 count, he's going to make the batter make a play. No free passes. Sometimes that pitch ends up in the right field bleachers a la Cliff Floyd. But sometimes it bounces down to Vinny, who makes the inning-ending throw.

I've been exceptionally critical of Cap'n Hook for his management of the starting staff. But I agree with his attitude toward relief pitchers. Relievers don't have time to settle in, explore the strike zone and get comfortable with the ump. Relievers have to throw strikes. They have to get ahead of batters and either strike them out or make them put the ball in play. Relievers cannot issue unintentional walks, ever.

Speaking of which, the Nats blogosphere is aflame with Monday-morning bullpen management. Contrast Capitol Punishment with Nationals Interest among many, many others. At least there's no arguing that D.C. fans don't understand the intricacies of baseball theory.

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