"It would be unacceptable for you and any of those players on that team, Davey Johnson and all of you, to pack it in on the season, there is some left -- " 106.7 the FAN in D.C.'s Holden Kushner said on this past Wednesday's edition of "The Mike Rizzo Show." Washington's GM interrupted the host there. "Make no mistake about that," Rizzo said firmly, "we are not packing this thing in. We're eight games out of a Wild Card spot with 50 games left in the season and believe me, these guys have no intention of packing it up." Atlanta's Braves completed a sweep of the Nationals later that night, "stepping on the the Nationals' throats," and destroying any lingering though far-fetched illusion the Nats may have had of there being a race in the NL East. But there are other ways into the postseason and other reasons to continue fighting.
"There's been no issue whatsoever with the effort and the preparation with this team," the Nats' General Manager continued, "There [have] been struggles with performance. There [have] been struggles with execution, but by no means is there a work ethic problem. Is there a morale problem. Is there a chemistry problem or is there a work problem. These guys are working their tails off. They care an extreme amount and we're certainly not giving up on anything at this time of the year."
Both the host and general manager laughed when Mr. Kushner said he hadn't finished his sentence and had no intention of implying that they should or would give up. The Nationals' GM and newly-promoted President of Baseball Operations had jumped the gun, admittedly, but he had a point to make and he wanted to stress the message that no one in the nation's capital is packing it in just yet. The defending NL East Champs may be out of the race in the division and even the Wild Card may be a long shot at this point, but until it's a mathematical certainty that they're out of contention, and even after that while there are still games to be played, no one is giving up.
"It's getting to a point where we're just not winning games and you hate to accept losing at any point, but the losses are definitely piling up," Jayson Werth said when he met with reporters after the Nats' 6-3 loss Wednesday night completed the second-straight series sweep by the Braves in Nationals Park. "It's not over, you know," the 34-year-old outfielder in the third year of his 7-year/$126M deal with Washington explained. "Like I said, we're not there yet and even when you get to that point it's not like you're going to give up. As long as there's a pitcher on the mound and I'm in the lineup I'm going to give it the best effort, but right now it's not lining up for us."
Everything fell into place last season. Werth talked about that over a month ago now, when people were really starting to wonder if the Nationals, who were hovering around .500 in late June, were going anywhere this season after making the first postseason appearance by a D.C.-based team since 1933 in 2012. Werth wondered at the time, if perhaps things had come too easily last season and allowed the Nationals to succeed without really learning how to win.
"'Last year, we cruised,'" Werth told reporters, "'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.'"
Neither the Nats' GM nor their $126M outfielder were questioning the team's effort, but Werth at least was wondering whether the expectation of a second straight trip to the postseason and a run at the World Series might have been premature on the team's part and on the part of preseason prognosticators everywhere who saw this team contending.
"As far as where we're at and where we're going," Werth said, "I mean, I read something the other day -- found some notes or whatever, it was before I signed here -- and I had written some stuff down about the different teams I was going to potentially play for and I was just kind of reading over the stuff for the Nats. And one of the things it said was they would be -- 'we' would be -- good towards the end of my contract. So it kind of put things in perspective. With the success last year and really where we're at now with the guys and we're still in a building-type phase, if you will, I know with all the expectations it doesn't really seem like that, but we've got a lot of young players and the direction is still good, I think we've got a lot of talent and there's a lot of things to look forward to here in Washington."
"I do like where the organizations is," Davey Johnson said Friday night, picking up the same thread in his pregame meeting with the press. "And and there's still some learning curve with Anthony Rendon at second and hitting up here. Getting [Wilson] Ramos healthy. [Bryce] Harper making adjustments. [Ian] Desmond not trying to do too much."
Ryan Zimmerman's power returning. His throwing mechanics getting straightened out. Stephen Strasburg getting stronger another year removed from Tommy John surgery. Drew Storen getting back to where he was before his own elbow surgery. The Nationals getting the right mix on the bench. The Nats may have expected to go back to the postseason again this year, but all along the plan was to build a team that could contend annually.
"There's no resignation in that room over there," Davey Johnson said, referring to the team's clubhouse, "there's certainly not with me. It's probably more frustrating for me, because I keep searching and keep thinking about what can I do to make it easier for the guys to perform. If I could figure out why guys, some veteran players, are having subpar years for themselves I would be all over it, but I think to a man everybody likes where the organization is at, likes the talent pool. The difference -- it's that small margin between winning and losing.
"And having some problems in the bullpen. Having some guys struggle off the bench. Having some other guys not get it going. All those things add up, but it doesn't mean I'm disappointed in the effort. It might be that guys are just trying too hard, but I like that effort more than... sometimes I think if you take up the attitude, 'I don't really care, I'm just going to relax and see something and hit it.' Same way pitching. When you try to do too much -- and maybe that's not used to being picked to win? Consistently playing important games? I don't know."
"There's all kinds of things that we're still learning," the Nats' 70-year-old skipper said. "We still need to grow."
But don't think all the fight is out of the manager just yet, even after the Nationals have fallen 15.5 games out in the NL East and even with them now at 55-60, 9.0 games out in the race for the second Wild Card spot. Davey Johnson's not giving up. "Now is a good time," he said defiantly,"... everyone has kind of written us off. Now is a good time to do something special."
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