If you were hoping for a closed-door meeting, for the postgame spread to be turned over, for the expletives to fly, for the panic button to be smashed with a closed fist … well, that didn’t happen Wednesday night. The tone coming out of the Nationals’ clubhouse following a hideous, 11-4 loss to the Diamondbacks was one of encouragement, of sticking together, of “having more fun.”
Oh, there will be a team meeting before Thursday afternoon’s series finale — “I think we’ll have a conversation tomorrow about where we want to go and what we want to do,” manager Matt Williams said — but the purpose won’t be to tear anybody down but rather to try to build people back up after a ragged stretch to open the season’s second half that has left this team in a suddenly precarious position.
“Laugh, and really try to enjoy the game,” right fielder Bryce Harper said, offering his prescription for what ails this team. “That’s all that matters. Try to enjoy the game, try to laugh and smile. There’s bigger things than just baseball in life. Just come in with a clean slate every single day and worry about what you can do to help your team win that day.”
Maybe there was nothing the Nationals could do after Wednesday night’s debacle but laugh it off and turn the page. This was, in every possible way, a laugher of a ballgame. Among its most notable features…
— A ghastly (and costly) error by Aaron Barrett, who fielded Nick Ahmed’s fifth-inning sacrifice bunt and fired it down the right-field line, bringing home the two runs that gave Arizona the lead for good. “Just trying to make a good play and get rid of it as fast as I could,” the right-hander said. “It just got away. It sucks.”
— A bases-loaded walk issued by Tanner Roark later in that fifth inning.
— A strike-out-the-side inning of relief by Oliver Perez, who got Harper swinging and then Ryan Zimmerman and Jayson Werth looking.
— A bases-loaded balk by Felipe Rivero in the top of the ninth.
— A position player, Tyler Moore, replacing the ineffective Rivero later that inning … and outperforming the rest of the Nationals bullpen by retiring two of the three batters he faced, including MVP candidate Paul Goldschmidt.
And then, of course, there was the big picture at the end of the night. A Nationals club that not long ago was expected to run away with the NL East title has now lost five of its last six while watching the Mets win six in a row and open up a 2-game lead in the division.
So, how come there’s no palpable sense of panic in the clubhouse right now?
“We can’t,” catcher Jose Lobaton said. “Still a lot of games. I know we’ve got a better team. I know we can do better and better, but that’s what baseball is giving to us right now. We gotta keep working and working and try to show the fans and everybody that we’re still a good team that’s gonna be in the playoffs.”
Playoffs? Playoffs? That may feel like the last thing this team should be worried about at the moment. Winning a game or two this week would seem to be a more pressing matter.
But that’s not this team’s style. There is an inherent confidence permeating through that clubhouse. It rubs some people the wrong way. But it’s who these Nationals are. They know they haven’t played up to their potential yet, but they believe they will before it’s all said and done.
“I think it’s just a matter of time, really,” left fielder Jayson Werth said after Tuesday night’s win. “We’re a great second-half team.”
There is some truth in that. Every team every year is by definition different, but the Nationals have established a pattern over the last three years of finishing the regular season on a roll. Their winning percentages in August and September in 2012, 2013 and 2014: .617, .630, .679.
Do they have another run like that in them in 2015? Who knows, but they may need one if they’re going to emerge on top and have another shot at erasing their October demons. At the moment, the Nationals (55-51) are playing at an 84-win pace. To get to 90, they’d need to play at a 101-win pace the rest of the way, a .623 winning percentage.
“I just think coming in every single day you’ve just gotta have a good mind, try to have a positive attitude every single day,” Harper said. “Just try to go about it the right way. Our team, we’re very good, and everybody knows that. Hopefully we can keep grinding it and keep doing it and have a positive attitude every single day. Just try to enjoy the game we play.”
The Nationals will hope to start that process Thursday afternoon, when their manager closes the doors to their clubhouse, gathers everybody together and tries to get them to use the embarrassment of their latest loss — and the last couple of weeks — as a wake-up call before it’s too late.
“Can it galvanize? Yeah, we hope so,” Williams said. “That’ll be the message tomorrow, for sure. We’ve got a limited number of games left, and we’ve got to play well if we’re going to get to where we want to go. That includes everybody. We feel good about the guy going for us tomorrow [rookie right-hander Joe Ross]. We’ll see if we can get that one to get started.”
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