What the Nationals taught me about gratitude

After the end of the Washington Nationals’ drama- and disappointment-laden 2015 season, I promised myself that whatever happened in 2016, I would simply be grateful for a winning season. That, of course, was an absurd sentiment. This team has done a ton of winning – far more winning than losing over the past half-decade. What was wrong with me, that I couldn’t see that? We had a year of non-stop bad luck, terrible office politics, horrible underperformance, and this worst-case scenario left us playing break-even ball.

This was a point where I thought my sports values needed some recalibration.

I decided that rather than stewing resentfully over lost opportunities, over things I thought I was “owed” as a fan, I should actually be thankful that our worst-case down years were still decent campaigns, with brilliant individual seasons and even, yes, some team highlights, too.

Mercifully, 2016 has been a much different tale for the Nationals, some of which I’ve blogged about and some of which I haven’t. I’ve mostly been engrossed, game to game, pitch to pitch, at-bat to at-bat, with a club that has not been historically brilliant but has been extremely deep and talented, and in the end, strung together a summer of consistently okay, good, and great weeks.

Consistently good is a rare, special, fun place to be in baseball.

We’re well into “postseason” talk now, who will make the tournament, and who will fall short of the World Series crown. The Nationals, famously, have yet to win a postseason series. But one thing I won’t do is pre-worry about that. I don’t care whether the Nationals face the Los Angeles Dodgers or anyone else, with or without home field advantage. When it comes to the playoffs, the old adage “nobody knows anything” turns out to be pretty darn true. Sample sizes are too small and teams are too evenly matched across the board; anything can happen at any time.

But even if there was some science to winning in the postseason, I wouldn’t let it impact the simple joy of daily good-ness for six months. No postseason tragedy will change my appreciation for wrapping up a year nearly 30 games over .500. Coming up short in the quest for a World Series won’t won’t diminish my view that winning a division, let alone a division with the defending National League champions in it, was a brilliant year. It won’t shatter my view of how entertaining – how courageous and gutsy – the 2016 Nats have been on a player-to-player, night-to-night basis.

It was a great year. It’s still going. Maybe it’ll be greater, yet. Who knows? Whatever the case, here are things I am specifically grateful for.

I am grateful for the consistency. A quick glance at the Nationals’ record on Baseball Reference brings us a pretty telling chart: namely, the absence of long stretches of red bars. There haven’t been huge bands of green, either. In general, the Nationals have been good for three wins every five days, over and over and over again – with striking, clockwork-like regularity. There was a hot start, a seven-game losing stretch that brought back bad, raw memories of collapse and futility – but that losing stretch was immediately followed by a six game win streak. There has been a calm steadiness to this years Nationals team that’s been a real pleasure to observe.

I am grateful for Daniel Murphy. “He can’t do this all year,” they said. Anyway, it’s nearly October, he’s hitting just shy of .350 (.347 at time of writing), so apparently he can. I basically type “Murphy gets a hit,” copy it and paste it before every game, because it’s bound to get tweeted or comment-posted at some point. His obliteration of the Mets – hits in 19 straight games! – has been a perfect embodiment of the year as a whole. He fishes hits from pockets of the strike zone that should be unhittable. He stings home runs from pitches up and inside. Yes, he’s striking out more than ever before; now he’s up to a meager 55 punch-outs on the year (by comparison, the very good slugger Mike Napoli has 191, Bryce Harper has 109.)

I am grateful for Trea Turner. When I see Turner play, I see a Roberto Alomar, Tim Raines, Kenny Lofton, or Marquis Grissom type of player – a true top-of-the-lineup disruptor. He boasts Olympic Trials-caliber speed, but he’s not just a sprinter. He lashes singles and doubles all over the diamond, he’s got legitimate 15-20 home run power, and he can play three defensive positions well enough or very well (that would be shortstop, center field, and second base.) It has been said that “prospects exist to break your heart,” but Turner looks like he’ll be a Nats staple for years to come. At any rate: I am extremely grateful for the boost, the pure shot-out-of-a-cannon electric energy that he has brought the club in the second half.

I am grateful for Anthony Rendon. He had exactly one RBI in April; now he’s just shy of 80. His first half OPS was a respectable but cool .746; his second half has been a Josh Donaldson-esque .868. From his slow start, he has launched himself into the company of some of the best hitters in the game — by fWAR, Nolan Arenado and Adrian Beltre are his nearest peers. He has been an elite defensive infielder all year, manning the hot corner with a graceful fluidity akin to gymnastics or ballet. He runs the bases well, hits for both power and contact – in sum, other than self-promote, I can’t think of anything he doesn’t do. It has been fantastic to see him healthy and helping to anchor the team.

I am grateful for Bryce Harper and Jayson Werth. The reigning NL MVP has had a red-hot, no-good, awful, red-hot, bad-again enigma of a year. It’s easy to be disappointed that Harper hasn’t repeated anything close to his absurd 2015. What’s hard to say: thank you for having the rare gifts and skills that create a 20/20 player with a .820 OPS, for playing generally terrific outfield defense, for running the bases better than ever before. I would love the Nats to be loaded up with guys who turn in this kind of bad year.

The 37-year-old Werth was supposed to be at the very end of his useful life as a ballplayer. Instead, he has had a major resurgence in 2016. He has shown both power and contact-making ability. He has been a brilliant base-runner. And he has also being a more-than-adequate defender in the outfield. He has helped set up runs with walks and singles; he has created runs with timely hits and power. A classic Werth at-bat involves Jayson being down quickly, no balls against two strikes, and then 11 pitches later, he’ll be standing on first, having drawn a walk. It’s those kinds of at-bats that have kept the Nationals competitive in every game, win or loss, week in and week out.

I am grateful for Stephen Drew. Much of the reaction to Drew’s signing in the spring amounted to, “Really? We’re paying $3 million for a backup?” But Drew has earned his pay and then some, not only playing several infield positions well, but also bringing a big-time bat off the bench. If he were just running into home runs that would be okay, but his approach at-bat to at-bat has been fantastic. He takes walks, slaps singles and doubles, and has also been a valuable baserunner. Drew stepping up as a “sixth man” has made the team deeper and more dangerous top to bottom.

I am grateful for Max Scherzer and Tanner Roark. These two starting pitchers go about their work completely differently, but one thing they share is that they are consistently terrific. Scherzer’s raw firepower sometimes bites him via the home run. But every time he takes the mound, we Nats fans are also liable to get a special evening. This year, we’ve seen him throw a 20-strikeout gem against a tremendous offensive Tigers club. We saw him toss a 93 game score (8 IP, 10 K, 0 BB) against the Orioles when O’s were swinging red-hot bats and the Nats bullpen was beat up. Perhaps the most “Max” start I can think of was a recent September outing against the Phillies. His pitch count was very high through three innings – but he found a way to get through six frames and he finished with a terrific 77 game score. He took a potentially short and bad night and transformed it into a very good one. As grateful as I am for the spectacular starts, it’s the very good off-nights – the ridiculously high floor – that has helped keep this team going forward.

Where Scherzer is “Mad Max,” stalking the mound, Roark is so understated and workmanlike it’s easy to forget he’s even there. He was a big question mark coming off a shaky, difficult 2015 campaign. But his 15-K gem in the spring against Minnesota was an early indicator that he was here to stay, and stay he has. His HR/9 rate is fourth lowest in the majors, and to date, he boasts the fourth highest “positive” Win Probability Added mark, ahead of Madison Bumgarner, Scherzer, David Price, and Jon Lester.

Roark’s emergence hasn’t been full of electric fanfare; it has been a quiet, slow burn. Maybe this is why I appreciate it so much – because it wasn’t obvious, it wasn’t destined to be. It took anonymous, unsexy work and struggle and risk. The results, for both Tanner and the Nationals, have been spectacular.

I am grateful for Stephen Strasburg. None of us know if he’ll be back for the playoffs. For that matter, none of us know how much baseball is really left in Stephen’s right arm. The healthy starts he gave us in this 2016 season were brilliant; then his elbow had other ideas. Maybe he’ll make 30 starts next year, maybe he’ll make 15. All I know is that Strasburg has given us – the club, the fans – everything his body can give. I will always be amazed at his talent. I will always admire his work ethic. I’m grateful I’ve gotten to savor every single blistering fastball, every plummeting change-up and darting slider that he’s got to offer.

I am grateful for Mark Melancon and the bullpen gang. The Jonathan Papelbon Era was a short, unfortunate affair, and it came to its natural and merciful end this summer. Bless you, Mark, for generally giving the Nationals relatively drama-free ninth innings. It hasn’t been just him, though. Shawn Kelley has been terrific all year. When healthy, Sammy Solis has been powerful. Blake Treinen has emerged as a premier bullpen ace-type. There’s a reason he was trusted to get the last out of the Nats’ division-clinching win against the Pirates. Koda Glover and perhaps Reynaldo Lopez as well both look to join those ranks. There is an awful lot to like in some of the hard-throwing young arms in the Nationals bullpen.

I am grateful for Dusty Baker. I appreciate Dusty’s non-robotic approach. I appreciate how he gets the bench involved. Does he do things I find bewildering and even highly frustrating? Oh yes, indeed. I say he stuck with Michael Taylor too long at leadoff and so forth. But he brings a human-ness to the front of the club that was sorely missing last year. Dusty and pitching coach Mike Maddux have been a welcome breath of fresh air.

I am grateful for Mike Rizzo and the Lerner Family. As general manager, Rizzo has assembled probably the deepest, most complete club in Nationals history. His free-agent signings and trades have been tactical and meaningful – he has made moves, but not for the sake making them. Melancon for Felipe Rivero is a classic Rizzo deal. Rivero will be great, and giving him up was a big get for Pittsburgh, but the Nats needed a veteran, proven closer and Melancon fit the bill. This was a transaction where the Pirates and Nationals both won. On top of the big league club, the farm system is loaded with guys who can really play. See: the evolution of A.J. Cole and the debuts of future stars Lopez and Lucas Giolito and future role players like Wilmer Difo and Pedro Severino. I’m grateful that the organization is in good shape financially, and has highly competent people calling the shots in reasonable, responsible ways.

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