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What’s Up With the Nationals, and Who’s to Blame: The Team, Management, or the Fans

We go to a game and come back with more questions than answers.

Ryan Zimmerman at bat. He said the firing of hitting coach Rick Eckstein is the fault of the players. “We’re the ones not hitting; we’re the ones not scoring runs.” Photograph by Carol Ross Joynt.

After a night out at Nats Park, the question feels obvious: What’s happening with the baseball team that began the season with such high hopes? Monday night’s game, the first in a series against the Pittsburgh Pirates, had sharp contrasts. At the high end, it began with a glowing Gio Gonzalez, receiving the large, bronze Warren Spahn Award in a pregame ceremony. There were some sparkling home runs from Adam LaRoche and Jayson Werth. But it wasn’t enough—despite a surge in the late innings, the game wrapped with a painful 6-5 Washington loss.

At the lowest end? A down-in-the-dumps manager Davey Johnson, at his postgame news conference, calling the day probably his “toughest” in a life of baseball. That’s because earlier he had to fire longtime hitting coach Rick Eckstein, who will be replaced by Rick Schu, coming up from the minors. The firing was the decision of general manager Mike Rizzo, but it was Johnson who had to do the deed, and it visibly weighed on him and appeared to have a hold on the team.

Was Monday a seismic moment for the Nats, who arrived in DC in 2005? Yes, and it’s amplified by the bumpy season, so far, and the contrast with this time last year when winning was the norm. Besides, what boss ever wants to be told, over his own wishes, to fire a trusted subordinate? Johnson indicated he won’t quit, but it wouldn’t be outlandish for him to feel humiliated.

None of that behind-the-scenes drama was apparent at the start of Monday’s game. Fans arrive at games with optimism and ebullience, and Monday was no different. The ready logic was that after three losses in a row, this would surely be the turning point. Except in the stands, sitting close enough to the Nats dugout to watch the players closely, their faces were an easy tell. They were glum, and they played glum, at least until the fifth inning, when LaRoche knocked out a homer and brought a roar from the home crowd. Fans are so easy. It takes only the basic truth of baseball, a glorious home run, to enjoy a sports version of the Sunday Christian ritual of “peace.” The fans look at each other, and it shows in their eyes: The tide has turned. But Monday night, it hadn’t. Even with the LaRoche homer the Nats were down 5-1. Another lift came later, with two homers from Werth (following on two homers he scored on Sunday), but that rally wasn’t enough.

It’s a sweet problem to even have a baseball team to debate about—way better than the days of no team at all—but the debate at this stage of summer is taking a slight turn away from the traditional fan grumblings to something more personal and intense. It’s veering into the blame game. Is that fair, and where would the blame go—the players themselves, the management, or the fans?

The conventional wisdom is that the team is good—very good, in fact. “There’s simply too much talent to give up now,” writes Joe Giglio in the Bleacher Report. “After dominating the National League for six months last year, the team is finding ways to lose on a nightly basis, overshadowing the pedigree in the dugout and on the field.” His recommendation is to make some strategic “stretch run” trades. The buck always stops with ownership, of course, and the Lerner family appears to be solidly behind their players and manager, particularly Rizzo. In his Sports Bog column, the Washington Post’s Dan Steinberg highlighted this nugget from principal owner Mark Lerner, spoken only last week at an event in Florida: “I don’t know if you’ve ever seen our team play in person, but let me tell you something about them that I think is important: We have a very young team that is on its way to greatness. When we bought the Nationals, we were in the equivalent of baseball’s Death Valley: last place, with the worst record in baseball, way below sea level… . Mike Rizzo—one of the best general managers in Major League Baseball—and my family have, in a very short time, built one of the deepest farm systems in the game.”

Still, another Washington Post sportswriter, Adam Kilgore, who covers the Nationals, noted that in the discordant back-and-forth with Rizzo over the Eckstein firing, Johnson volunteered to get the ax over Eckstein. Kilgore quoted Johnson from June, saying, “If you want to fire the hitting coach, you might as well fire me right with him.” That didn’t happen, nor did Johnson quit. But at the end of his postgame news conference Monday, when a reporter hinted at his job security, Johnson said he wasn’t going to “go there.”

In his Florida remarks quoted by Steinberg, Lerner mentions the Nationals fans: “Last season sparked a love affair between our fans and the team, and it continues to grow with each passing game.” That’s true, and the affection is tangible at Nats Park, even on the night of a losing game. Lately it’s loved tinged too often with frustration and disappointment, but it’s still love. If the Nats fan base is guilty of anything, it’s too much optimism, believing in too much too soon, and buying into the preseason hoopla that the Nats were on an express ride to the World Series and the pennant.

It’s still possible—if not this year, then maybe the next, or the one after that. And maybe if the bar hadn’t been set ridiculously high before game one, and DC wasn’t still fueled by the optimism of winning the NL East last year, all the debaters would see the season so far as just what it is: hovering around the middle, with time ahead, and a team that is a solid, growing contrast to what it was at the beginning—Lerner’s Death Valley of baseball.

So if there’s blame to be directed it probably goes around evenly. But there are still more than 60 opportunities on the schedule between now and the end of September, and tonight’s a whole new ballgame.

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