It was a lively conversation, filled with laughs. But in that crew, they were perhaps more drowning sorrows than patting backs.
Johnson listened as they “bemoaned how terrible they’re hitting,” he said, chuckling to himself at the memory Tuesday.
“I said, ‘Don’t be talkin’ that around me,’” Johnson recalled. “‘We ain’t doing too good either.’”
Ten months ago, the Giants were loaded onto a plane on the tarmac in Cincinnati waiting for a final out that they figured, like most everyone else, would bring them to Washington to begin the National League Championship Series. That out, of course, didn’t come in time.
Tuesday, when the two teams met to begin a three-game series at Nationals Park in what one San Francisco writer termed a “Disappointment-fest,” neither team had a record above .500, and they were a combined 29 1/2 games out of first place.
It was jarring to see the change in the two teams’ fortunes less than a year removed from such success.
“I’m surprised,” Bochy said. “I think both teams would say that. We had higher expectations. I think we set the bar higher. For us both to be where we’re at, I think that surprises me.
“Two really good teams that it just hasn’t gone quite like we had hoped. I know they’re probably a little surprised, too, just like we are.”
The expectations placed on the Nationals and the Giants this season came not from obscure ideas and projections, but from track record. The Nationals won 98 games a season ago, and were one strike from the NLCS. The Giants have won two of the past three World Series.
Both teams were returning the majority of the personnel that made them so successful. How could this year be anything but an encore performance for both?
“Every little thing is so important,” said Johnson, who is fond of saying that it takes all 25 guys on a roster to be a championship club. “Bench, bullpen, starters, offense, if you got a little glitch in any area it can keep you from getting where you want to go. We’ve had ‘em, he’s had ‘em.”
“Every year is different,” Bochy agreed. “The year that your guys have, how the ball bounces, calls, things like that, every year is different. We played great last year. The last three years. This year, what could go wrong went wrong. Shows you the fine line between winning, and not just getting to the playoffs, but each day. We probably have had 20 games that we’d like to think we would’ve won most of them last year. This year, we didn’t do it.”
For all of the Nationals‘ struggles — they entered Tuesday’s game with the division race all but over to go along with an eight-game mountain to climb in the wild-card race — they’ve been five games better than the Giants this season.
The Giants are the worst defending champion at this point in the season since the 1998 Florida Marlins, who finished 52 games behind the Braves.
That struggle, as well as the Nationals‘ to an extent, perhaps exemplifies just how difficult it is to do what either team did a season ago. Nationals third baseman Ryan Zimmerman has said on multiple occasions this season that it’s hard to make people understand what a challenge it is to win 98 games, or make the playoffs year in, year out. He’s not alone.
“I think people take it for granted [how difficult it is],” said right-hander Tyler Clippard. “Especially with the success teams have had in the past with strings of getting into the playoffs or strings of World Series championships.
“That stuff is very special and it doesn’t happen a lot. When it happens a lot, people kind of water down their expectations of it. But each time you do it, it’s a very special thing. I think [the seasons we’re both having] kind of puts everything in perspective as far as how hard it is.”
What has made the Nationals and Giants so mutually unique, however, is that neither has had to deal with a catastrophic rash of injuries, or one glaring weakness they can point to as the root of their struggles. It’s all little things, here and there, that have conspired against them.
“When there’s a lot of little cracks in the dam, a lot of water starts coming through,” Johnson said. “Too many cracks and you’ve got a flood. It’s hard to change that momentum around. … All those little things, it’s not just one thing, they add up.”