Saturday, June 20, 2009

The Elastic Effect

The Nats were drowning in quicksand just a week or so ago, but now they are riding a brief, somewhat thrilling, three-game winning streak. They haven't been blowing teams out, but they are keeping themselves in games. The Nats suffered some misfortune to assist their general poor play. When games got tight in the later innings, every player had a "deer in the headlights" look. They didn't "know" how win and being afraid of failure begets more failure.

Take a look at what the Rockies have been doing this month. After struggling mightily for their first forty-five games, enough so Clint Hurdle was relieved of managerial duties, they have caught fire like nobody's business. The attitude around the locker room has been described as loose, everyone is having more fun. Of course winning is more fun. But here is another chicken/egg conundrum for the Nats. Which comes first: the winning or the fun?

The damning truth is the winning has to come first. Some teams stockpile talent using vastly superior resources (money) to assemble a winning team. However, most teams coming out of spring training know that it is hard work to win over a sixth month period, and only eight teams will reach that goal. The Nats that came out of spring training were a miscast group of young players and veterans. Nobody on the roster was 27 or 28, basically the age when players are entering their "prime". They did not have an established leader in the clubhouse, and thankfully management made an effort to solve that by the end of April by signing Zimmerman long term.

Then this week happened. The Nats had found every conceivable way to lose this season, but then on Wednesday, the bullpen held strong. Thursday, Craig Stammen delivered like he was back on the farm, only he was doing it in Yankee Stadium. Friday the Nats spoiled numerous opportunities to to put the game away with their bats, the defense tried desperately to give the game away with their gloves, but the bullpen pulled a couple critical outs to extend the game. Finally, they snuck off a single and it was over. Then on Saturday, to prove Friday's extra-inning bonanza wasn't a fluke, Willie Harris goes deep for another walk-off win. The Nats managed to collect a fifth (not of Jack Daniels) of their season win total in four days. Embarrassing and awesome at the same time.

While it would be foolish to believe that the Nats are going to on a 14-1 run, the signs are there. Cristian Guzman is even running hard down to first base to beat out ground balls. Why now? The players won a few games and it felt good, and now they believe they can win again. They believe the starting pitchers will keep them in games and the relief pitchers will not spoil things. Better yet, the pitchers are beginning to believe in themselves.

The "elastic effect" happens in all sports, though it is a phenomenon observed less in football, due to fewer games. Very few professional athletes are not born to lose; most have experienced success at every level to make to the highest stage, and losing is an unacceptable outcome. Over the course of a season, luck will even out with the best teams winning two out of three games... and the worst losing two out of three. Even if the Nats were the worst (many metrics show that they are not), they have been playing well below their potential and have been due for a little luck and momentum to go their way. To make a run at the all-time loss record, the Nats would need to seriously downgrade their roster, probably crushing any chance the team has to survive in this city long term.

Instead, expect the Nats to make small strides the rest of the year, with a few winning streaks followed by continued growing pains. The Nats need to go 43-52 down the stretch to avoid 100 losses, thereby improving on the 2008 disaster. Probably a reach, but far from impossible.

No comments:

Post a Comment