There is a theory in baseball circles when it comes to the playoffs.
Teams are built for the grind. Built to win over the course of 162 grueling games from April through September. It’s a schedule intended to weed out the lesser competitors, the teams without the depth to sustain injuries or the personnel that fits together just so.
But if you get to the playoffs, if you’re one of the elite teams that reaches that first checkpoint en route to the promised land, that is a different animal.
Then, the thinking goes, you must simply let the Fates play out.
“Once you’re in, all bets are off,” Washington Nationals right fielder Jayson Werth said.
“There’s no favorites, there’s no underdogs. It’s just who finds a way to win, who can get lucky.”
It is an interesting paradox, luck playing such an important role in deciding the outcome of a season that so much work has gone into. But baseball’s postseason is littered with moments that can hardly be explained otherwise.
A routine ground ball through the legs of a first baseman. A hobbled MVP with a pinch-hit home run. A final out that is inches away, yet refuses to come.
Each October seems to serve as another reminder to toss your expectations out the window. Because it’s not very often that the team that’s expected to win it all actually does.
“I don’t think the best team wins every year,” first baseman Adam LaRoche said. “I think the hottest team wins.”
What, then, does that mean for the 2013 Washington Nationals, a unit so balanced with talent that when Werth arrived at spring training he asked aloud if there had ever before been a team this complete on paper?
The expectations for what they can do — largely unchanged from the group that posted the best record in the majors in 2012 and with the gut-wrenching experience that a stunning playoff elimination can provide — are high.
With days to go before the 2013 season opens, the Nationals are 7-1 favorites to win the World Series, and 7-2 favorites to take the National League pennant, according to the online oddsmaker Bovada. Sports Illustrated and ESPN the Magazine picked them to win the World Series.
Earlier this month, a website called predictionmachine.com ran the 2013 schedule through a simulator that played it 50,000 times. Ten percent of the time, the Nationals won the World Series. In the most common result, they lost in the Fall Classic to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.
The chance for disappointment is great.
“It just tells you you’re doing something right,” Nationals manager Davey Johnson said. “I like it. … I certainly like the fact that what we’ve done hasn’t gone unnoticed.”
There may be just one problem.
According to Bovada, the last odds-on favorite to win the World Series that ultimately did it was the 2009 New York Yankees. And they’re relatively alone in that class.
Perhaps it is the mere nature of the playoffs that has brought those results, the “luck” that so many players, coaches and officials refer to. A glance back at just the past three World Series winners, and no doubt several others, would certainly support that idea.
Or perhaps it was the expectations that crushed those teams before they could reach their ultimate goal. The losses that weighed so much heavier on them — because they weren’t supposed to suffer them — perhaps helped them pile up.
Present the idea that outside expectations can affect the play of those inside the clubhouse and the question hangs there like coconut swaying in the wind, before it’s promptly swatted away.
“Pressure is just self-imposed,” Johnson said.
“I think losing is what should bring teams together, really,” said Dan Haren, whose 2012 Angels had 7-1 preseason odds to win the World Series and missed the playoffs entirely.
“Those are other people’s projections,” Werth added. “What goes on in here, and what we have, is something you can’t really calculate. You can’t really put a finger on it. Everything else is other people’s thoughts and projections. And they don’t really matter.”The consensus is that the focus must remain on the smaller goals, even if their manager spent all winter telling anyone who would listen that the slogan for the season was “World Series or bust.”
When the 2012 version of the Nationals was at its best, the players were able to float from one game to the next without carrying the results from the previous one with them, good or bad. They blew a nine-run lead to the Atlanta Braves last July and dropped the opener of the next day’s doubleheader to shrink their division lead to 1 games. They won eight of their next nine games.
Win the game. Win the series. Reach the All-Star break in a favorable position in the division. Win the game. Win the series. Clinch the division.
The ability to maintain that pragmatic approach was paramount to their consistency last season, just as it will be paramount now to brushing off the accelerated expectations.
“I don’t think anything’s changed,” LaRoche said. “If anything, now when we are winning, we expect it, whereas last year we kind of felt our way out. It was probably three months out before we started expecting to win.
“This year it’ll be like ‘OK, we’re supposed to be here.’ But we’ve still got to go do it.”
There is something people like about a team that hasn’t previously won making its emergence. There is something mystical about their wins, when viewed in the larger sense. Something romantic. When you’ve won, and you’re supposed to continue, there can be fewer starry-eyed feelings about a team from the outside.
Inside? One quiet spring training morning last week, Johnson was asked if he liked it better to be favored.
“Oh, amen,” he said.
“It’s one thing trying to climb the hill. It’s another thing when you actually have that X on your back,” Johnson said on another occasion. “But it just makes it more fun. … I’m going to take the heat if we don’t play well, and they can have all of the trophies when they do play well. I have high expectations, and I know everybody in that room has high expectations. There’s nothing wrong with that. That’s a great feeling.”
Everywhere the Nationals have gone this spring, more opposing coaches, scouts and officials offer a low whistle or a raised eyebrow when the topic of how good they could be this year is broached. Or, if it isn’t, it’s often brought up unsolicited. Even their problems are coveted.
“They’re a good club,” Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. “For me, they’re still the club to beat in our division.”
Just another example of how the stakes have been raised.
But what that expectation does, really, is help put whatever they do accomplish in context.
The playoffs may be a crapshoot, but missing them altogether, or failing to move past what they did in 2012, won’t be met with an “aw, shucks,” reaction any longer.
“Say we lose three in a row, we’re not going to say ‘What’s wrong with this team? We’re supposed to be the best team how did so-and-so beat us?’” LaRoche said. “It’ll be an end of the year thing, if we’re not in the playoffs.
“Instead of ‘Man, we had a really good year, just missed the playoffs, whatever.’ When you’re a really good team, all of a sudden, the record doesn’t even matter. It goes to ‘What went wrong? Whose fault was it?’ Usually it’s the critics, fans, whoever, who make it a big story.”
But the Nationals are still an organization whose undistinguished moments account for more time than their supremacy. And for those who lived through those days, the memories haven’t been erased.
No one will tell you they would rather be unheralded or under the radar. Or worse, overlooked entirely. They know they should make the playoffs. They hope it will be more than that.”It’s a good thing when you’re in this position as a team, but if you’re not in the playoffs, it’s disappointing,” LaRoche said. “I don’t want to say that that’s not our goal, to get to the playoffs. Obviously it’s not the end goal, but it’s step one. Getting there.”Unfortunately after that, a lot of the time, it’s who’s hot at the right time. All bets are off.”