There are plenty of people — national and local media alike — that are using this weekend’s series between the Washington Nationals and the New York Yankees as a litmus test for the upstart Nats. Every move, every at bat, every pitch; the young Nationals are being compared and contrasted with the veteran, experienced — and expensive — Yankees.
A lot of those media types will blast headlines and concentrate their stories of yesterday’s 14 inning, 5-3 loss to the Yankees on 19-year old Bryce Harper’s rough day, a day in which a player 20 years his senior, a multiple World Series winner, carved him up with slider after slider, en route to an 0-for-7, five strikeout day.
They’ll point to the consecutive losses, proclaiming the Nationals a “good story,” but until they can knock off the “big, bad Yankees,” as manager Davey Johnson described them in Friday’s pre-game media session, that’s all they’ll be for now. They’ll point to the Nats inexperience and lack of “clutch” and all the other undefinable intangibles to render a verdict that the Nats just simply aren’t ready to hang with the big dogs.
To that, I simply state: hogwash. And in my mind, I’m using a harsher word that is similar to “hogwash.”
What we’ve seen the past two days is two of the best teams in Major League baseball go head-to-head, with one team winning both games by the slightest of margins. We’ve seen one team have a veteran player exposed for his ineffectiveness, put into pressure ballgames once by managerial choice and once out of necessity due to extreme circumstances, only to fail both times. We’ve seen flawed players make errors and mistakes that we’ve all seen them make repeatedly the last couple of years. It had nothing to do with the “spotlight”. It’s who they are.
We’ve seen two of the best starting pitchers in the National League tested by a veteran American League lineup notorious for taking pitch after pitch. Those starting pitchers gave up a grand total of five earned runs in 12 innings. We’ve seen the Nats lineup struggle to put runs on the board, failing time and again with runners in scoring position. But that had so very little to do with the pitchers they were facing, as the Nats have lagged behind the rest of the N.L. all season in plating base runners. They just don’t have enough offense. We know this.
And we saw some questionable umpiring decisions in key moments of the games. It’s not because of lack of respect for the Nats or “Yankees bias”. It’s a league-wide epidemic.
The Nats success in the first 60 games of the season have raised expectations for this team, both locally and nationally. Where once it was thought this team could be competitive this season and challenge for an above .500 record for the first time since the relocation, now folks expect the playoffs. They spend time wondering about how the Nats can shut down Stephen Strasburg right before the playoffs. They envision a playoff rotation. They expect a division championship. Anything less, at this point, will come as a grand disappointment.
It’s obvious reading Twitter and comments to blog posts and game stories. Every managerial decision is being scrutinized. Every error or strikeout magnified. In one way, this Yankees series couldn’t have come at a better time, with the Nats coming off a six-game road trip sweep and playing some of its best baseball all season. But it’s a double-edged sword, because two straight losses, staring a sweep in the face Sunday, will be hailed as an indictment on the lack of preparedness for the young Nationals to embark on true stardom.
The Nats have been playing the part of national media darlings all season. Really, it started in spring training when some national pundits got out early on the bandwagon, making the Nats a trendy pick for the playoffs before they even played a game.
How about we let them play ball and threaten a winning season first before we start expecting their first playoff appearance? It’s fun to get excited about the Nats playing winning baseball after suffering through so many near-historically bad seasons, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Let’s not bury them prematurely with expectations while they’re still undermanned and maybe not quite ready for prime time. Let’s let them get healthy, put their full team on the field, trim the dead weight and maybe add a piece for the stretch run.
And please, let’s not use the Yankees, with their $196 million dollar payroll — more than double that of the Nationals — as a litmus test. Don’t put the weight of these losses on 19-year old shoulders. Don’t succumb to the easy narrative. It’s not fair to the players, executives, and staff that have worked to get to this point, a point none of us expected at the start of the season.