MILWAUKEE — Wednesday afternoon, frustrated by a two-game beatdown by the Detroit Tigers, Bryce Harper stood in a quiet clubhouse at Comerica Park and offered his opinion on what the Nationals needed to turn around a disappointing season.
“You’ve got to have heart right now,” Harper said. “You’ve got to play as a family, and everybody’s got to want it, starting with the manager on down to everybody.”
Friday afternoon, there was a red-camoflauge t-shirt hanging over the backs of every chair in the visitors’ clubhouse at Miller Park. On it was the mantra from the move ‘Red Tails’ a film inspired by the heroics of the first all-African American aerial combat unit, the Tuskegee Airmen.
“To the last minute to the last second to the last man — we fight.”
Manager Davey Johnson said he had no problem with Harper’s comments.
“I think it’s fine,” Johnson said. “Not that we needed a jolt. We just need some hits, with some runners in scoring position. Put some zeroes up there.”
But the general consensus was that the Nationals need to elevate their play, perhaps more so than their attitude.
“Everyday I come out and play as hard as I can and try to win every game,” said third baseman Ryan Zimmerman. “I really don’t think that’s the problem with this team. I think that’s the least of the worries of anyone in this clubhouse, that any of us aren’t trying our best or hardest to win. But everyone has their own opinion. I can’t speak for everyone. I don’t think that’s a problem with this team or this organization.
“At the end of the day you could be best friends with everyone in the clubhouse or you could hate everyone in the clubhouse but if everyone hit .300 with 30 home runs and 100 RBI we’d all be a great family. When it comes down to it, our job is to go out there and play.”
The Nationals have struggled to put a finger on what exactly is behind the root of their underperformance this season, except to say that there are multiple culprits. They did not, by any means, expect so many of their players to be below their career norms at this point in the season.
“Honestly, truthfully, it’s not easy to be the best team in the league every year,” Zimmerman said. “We just haven’t played great baseball consistently. We’ll go through a couple weeks where we’ll play really good, and go through a couple weeks where we play really bad. The first month and a half of the season we played bad baseball. Since then we’ve been fairly consistent… If we want to win at this level and go to the postseason and do things like we did last year, that’s what you have to do.
“When it comes down to it, you shouldn’t have to tell 30-year-old men who are getting paid millions of dollars to play baseball what to do or have to fire ‘em up. I really don’t believe in that kind of stuff. I go out there every night and do everything I can to help the team win, whether we’re 30 games under .500 or 30 games over because that’s what I’m supposed to do. I don’t really think anyone else in that clubhouse has a different mindset than I do.”
Johnson supported Zimmerman’s stance in saying that while talk is great — and he advocates talking to yourself, pumping yourself up — performance speaks.
“It’s all about performance on the field,” Johnson said. “We’ve obviously not been performing as well as we’re capable of performing. But I can’t blame any one person. I think as a group we’re just not doing the things that we’re paid to do.
“Any time you’re not doing the things you’re capable of doing, any time you’re not having a great year, there’s always going to be anxiety. Shoot, earlier in the year my whole bench was hitting under .200. You think they’re going to be singing karaoke songs? No. The only way to really be happy is to do some things on the field. That’ll never change. But do I still like the makeup on this club? Yeah. We’ve just got to be a little better, play a little smarter.
“You’ve just got to go out and prove you’re the best when you get on that field. It’s that simple. Have a good pitched ballgame and get some key hits. You can’t talk your way into that.”