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Embracing expectations, avoiding pressure

Feb 21, 2014, 6:00 AM EDT

AP AP

VIERA, Fla. — Perhaps no club in the majors had loftier expectations entering 2013 than the Nationals. Certainly no club struggled with living up to those expectations like the Nats did.

One year later, the expectations remain sky-high. They just hope they’re better-equipped to handle them.

“I think expectations are good,” first-year manager Matt Williams said. “And especially with a team like this, they’re going to be there. You can’t get away from that. What we have to make sure is that we embrace that part of it, and realize that expectations are going to be there. And that’s a good thing, because they wouldn’t be if we didn’t have such a good bunch of guys and all this talent. Let’s embrace that and let’s understand that and let’s work as hard as we can to fulfill those.”

How, though, do the Nationals embrace the pressure without succumbing to it?

More than one player has noted this spring how last year’s squad couldn’t quite figure out how to strike that balance. But now that they’ve experienced it, they believe they’re better prepared to handle it.

“To win 98 games and break through and get over the hump, and then for us to sustain that for a year, I think we all learned it’s not as easy as everyone says it is,” third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. “Every team, everyone has to go through that. Hopefully we went through it last year and we’ll use it to our advantage this year.”

With increased emphasis on spring training and a push to get 2014 off to a strong start, the Nationals are hoping to avoid the malaise that defined the first half of last season.

“I feel like it’s like that every year,” right fielder Jayson Werth said. “Like it’s: ‘Hey, we gotta get off to a good start!’ When I played on all those teams in Philly, that was always the mantra. That’s fine. My strategy has always been, it kind of goes like this [makes rising motion with his arm] and you’re playing your best ball in the middle of August and down the stretch. Not that you want to go down at the start, but just build up to where you’re on the upswing going into the postseason. And we were really, really close to timing that whole thing right last year.”

Indeed, the Nationals posted baseball’s best record from Aug. 9 through season’s end, going 31-16 to finish the year 86-76.

“We just didn’t play good enough in the first half to give ourselves a chance in the end,” Werth said. “But when you play like we did down the stretch and go into the postseason on fire like that, it’s good. A lot of teams end up winning the World Series like that. I didn’t mind that. I liked that about last year. People were awful down on last year. I’m kind of like, other than the first couple months, it wasn’t all that bad. We were really close to where we needed to be.”

How, though, do the Nationals avoid the prolonged stretch of mediocrity that defined the first half of 2013 and left them in a position where they had to play near-perfect baseball simply to get back into the fringes of contention?

“Our concentration is today and today only, and doing everything we can with that particular day – whether it’s a workout or whether it’s a game or it’s April or it’s September,” Williams said. “And that’s part of the mantra, I think. We’ll play for today, and at the end of it there’s nothing that we can do about it at that point anyway. We have to start preparing for the next one.”

  1. nats128 - Feb 21, 2014 at 6:33 AM

    ‘Hey, we gotta get off to a good start!’

    Im glad Jayson said it and its a reminder to all those who laugh off April losses. I would go further and say the head to head games with division rivals are even bigger.

    The Nats actually got off to a great start in 2013 going 7-2 before the 1st series with the Braves. It was that loss in Game #10 to the Braves that could have been the difference in being a good start and a bad April finishing at 13-14 and closed out April with 2 more losses to the Barves. Generally 1 game of 162 wouldnt have the impact overall but it seemed to be a turn in team momentum after the Game 10 loss. The Braves kept getting better and the Nats moved to mediocrity until August 9th which was a little too late.

    • therealjohnc - Feb 21, 2014 at 8:42 AM

      No one “laughs off” April loses. But they happen, and don’t dictate a season. No one game, or even a series, does. It’s easy to string together a narrative after the fact (“B followed A, therefore A caused B”). Those narratives are frequently wrong.

      Also, the Braves didn’t just keep getting better las year. They got off to a blistering star, wee mediocre for several weeks, had another hot ron in mdsummer and then coasted in

      • nats128 - Feb 21, 2014 at 8:50 AM

        John, I wasnt referring to the players rather some posters here who consistently were saying those April losses didn’t matter. The famous quote was nobody wins a pennant in April. That’s true but a 13-14 April record and 1-4 against the Braves was not what you wanted to see going into May.

        The Nats finished 6-13 against the Braves and if they just reversed that record it would have been a different ending to the season.

  2. natinalsgo - Feb 21, 2014 at 8:21 AM

    Mark says “avoiding pressure”. Some players fold under pressure and others get the “clutch” high fives as they embrace the pressure.

    Williams has to regulate the pressure while making the decisions to put his players in the optimum situations to succeed.

    • nats128 - Feb 21, 2014 at 8:42 AM

      I think you avoid pressure as a team if you play with that killer instinct at all times. Pour on the runs and get a sizeable lead in the NL East to where you leave the Barves giving up all hope.

      The Nats up until August 9th didnt have that killer instinct and had a hard time putting add-on runs on the board.

      It would be amazing to see this pitching staff put up a team ERA to beat the Braves MLB best 3.18 last year. The Braves bullpen was that good. The Nats were 6th in the Majors at 3.59 for overall ERA and this is what this team is built for.

  3. ehay2k - Feb 21, 2014 at 8:52 AM

    Perhaps it’s just my perception colored by sting of last year, but I seem to recall that out of spring training, the Nats may have won games but they won ugly. There were a lot defensive mistakes and generally sloppy play, and I seem to recall people were saying at the time that they didn’t seem to be ready to play coming out of spring training. I certainly had that feeling.

    13th in the NL in fielding? Were many more of their errors in the first half of the season? Or the first couple of months? If there were a lot more, that would seem to point to a lack of preparedness, not of ability. Granted, Zimm’s throwing was a part of that poor fielding stat, but he wasn’t making all the errors.

    Hearing Williams talk about prep and fundamentals warms my heart. That is the kind of focus that wins ballgames, not “we are supposed to be good so we have to win this game to prove it”, which is how I felt they played in the beginning of last year. Perhaps that attitude is why the early losses to the Barves last year were so deflating to the team – they played poorly, but they weren’t poor players, and they didn’t seem able to make the distinction and went into a funk. Then later, the pressure to win every game became so much the Barves could further emasculate the Nats by repeatedly throwing at Harper with no consequence. (Remember Bryce’s comment at the time about the team needing him to try to win, which is why he didn’t retaliate himself? Maybe someone else could take a bullet for him then? I was never a big Nyjer fan, but he would have never sat for Bryce being plunked.) I believe tha just playing the Barves .500 would have gotten us into the playoffs.

    To me, last year was not a failure simply because the Nats didn’t make the playoffs, win the division, etc. It was a failure because they all too often failed to compete according to the level of their abilities.

    This year already looks different.

    • sjm308 - Feb 21, 2014 at 9:00 AM

      +1

    • nats128 - Feb 21, 2014 at 9:02 AM

      “13th in the NL in fielding?” that doesnt even include the poor UZR as the Nats had the lowest corner infield UZR in the Majors and was actually worse than the Detroit combination of Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder. Thats saying something and especially consider how it affected the groundball pitchers. It was sickening to see the infield defense behind young Taylor Jordan. He induced the groundballs he wanted and too many ended up in the outfield.

    • Sonny G 10 - Feb 21, 2014 at 6:30 PM

      +1

  4. Doc - Feb 21, 2014 at 9:14 AM

    RE: ‘lowest corner infield UZR in the Majors’

    RZim will be able to improve his; ALR won’t.

    All the more reason to put Rendon at 3B and RZim at first. Skole, if he does his stuff in the minors could also be an answer to 1B range.

    • natinalsgo - Feb 21, 2014 at 9:23 AM

      Doc, have to hope ALR improves on range. Also remember that errors are a component of UZR.

      • sjm308 - Feb 21, 2014 at 10:28 AM

        Doc – with the Nationals finally employing shifts for certain hitters, this will actually help LaRoche since he won’t be thinking about going to the hole but mainly protecting just the line. Obviously not all hitters will have shifts put on but I am excited to see how this plays out.

  5. naterialguy - Feb 21, 2014 at 9:30 AM

    4 tickets for March 1, free to Nats insiders ezloanez@yahoo.com

  6. sjm308 - Feb 21, 2014 at 10:27 AM

    It is telling to me that the 4 guys that share season tickets with me are honestly casual fans and do not read as many blogs on our lads as I do. When I was pointing out last year, and over the winter, how poorly Zimm & LaRoche were ranked on defense, their comments were basically that I was off my rocker. They understood Zimms throws because you could actually see those but they continually defended LaRoche because what they saw which was his ability to pick balls out of the dirt. The range of both our corner infielders is troubling and lets hope both will improve. I am guessing that most casual fans would feel like my buddies but the fact that its now out there in print will hopefully let people focus on what we really need to do to improve. I also think that the fact that we will now actually employ shifts on certain hitters might help LaRoche a little more.

    Go Nats!!

    • natinalsgo - Feb 21, 2014 at 11:16 AM

      sjm, you made several good points and the casual fan had no clue on corner infield range deterioration. It’s almost beyond belief how bad it got but on other blogs there were discussions of how RZim was relying on quick hands to bail him out on his ‘olé’ plays and he just lost his touch on those. Part of it was positioning and partly the luck factor. When you measure hot smashes in split seconds the ability to play at normal depth would seem to be the main determing factor.

      On ALR, unfortunately scooping errant throws doesn’t show up in any Sabremetric or traditional stat but ALR could definitely be helped by positioning.

      The worst balls past corner infielders are the ones that get by them down the line and become doubles instead of routine singles. If this positioning coach can improve that you are cutting down immediately on an automatic RISP situation.

      • adcwonk - Feb 21, 2014 at 1:26 PM

        It seemed to me that the more major problem was RZimm — who, because of his erratic arm — continually played too far in, which limited his range. (And, I’m guessing, way more smashes go down the 3rd base line than the 1st base line)

      • letswin3 - Feb 21, 2014 at 3:13 PM

        Adcwonk, that was my impression too. He moved in to get the ball in his glove earlier, hoping that that fraction of a second could compensate for his shoulder issues. The likely result was that balls that he normally could get to (when stationed at the normal depth) on his left and right became unreachable. He says the shoulder is completely healthy, and I remember a guy a few years back that many considered worth of being in the conversation for a gold glove every year … hope he gets back to that level, cause his bat is still a key component in this lineup.

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