- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 20, 2015

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

The Washington Nationals return home Friday to the friendly confines of Nationals Park. Will they be welcomed with open arms or pitchforks?

The forks would be to stick in this team, as many believe the Nationals are done.

Not yet. Not by a long shot.

Get ready for a six-week National League East division race that will includes the Nationals and the New York Mets trying to find ways to win and lose the division title and make the postseason.

The Mets have their own problems. Right now, they’re trying to protect their precious trio of young pitchers, all of whom have reached, gone beyond, or are about to throw more innings than they have in their short professional careers. Baseball people know September innings in a pennant race are much harder on young arms than the ones they pitch in April, May and June.

The Nationals‘ problems? They have to rely on a group of veteran players who have spent more time on the disabled list this season than on the diamond.
For those who call for the benching of 36-year-old Jayson Werth, you will be disappointed because Werth isn’t going anywhere. They need Werth, who batted .292 last season, in order to win this division.

Same for those who want to see Ryan Zimmerman out of the lineup — that’s not happening, because they need Zimmerman to win this division.

And Matt Williams? The bane of Nationals’ fans existence? He isn’t going anywhere, either. The Nationals will win or lose this division with Williams in the dugout.

Feel good about that? No?

Then maybe you’re not cut out for a real, live baseball pennant race.

Williams has been crucified for lineup decisions, bullpen moves, and generally just not being a fun guy — as if sitting in your living room, you have special knowledge of who is available out of the bullpen for a variety of reasons and who is not. That was the case in New York recently when the Nationals were swept by the Mets and neither Jonathan Papelbon or Drew Storen were used in key situations.

These decisions by Williams? They’re not made in a vacuum. Williams is a manager who relies on the input of his coaching staff — pitching coach Steve McCatty and bench coach Randy Knorr. You want Williams gone, you might as well clean out the rest of the dugout.

The Nationals are where they are because of Williams. They’re a team decimated by injuries more than any other in baseball, at times playing long stretches with just 50 percent of the starting lineup. They’re still battling for a division title against a team that has come on with the best young trio of starting pitchers in the game.

This team still has the same flaws it had when Davey Johnson was managing — a collection of talented, but streaky, hitters who struggle with manufacturing runs, a team whose pulse is sometime hard to detect.

“Obviously, we haven’t been playing the way we want to play,” Werth told MASN after Washington’s 15-6 win over the Colorado Rockies on Tuesday. “I haven’t been playing the way I want to play. The whole season is in front of us. We got a long way to go. We need to play with a little bit of a sense of urgency and play like we’re accustomed to and I think we’re going to be fine.”

A little sense of urgency, I think we’re going to be fine — it’s that kind of message than drives fans crazy, but that is who this team is. They are not the Gashouse Gang (look that up on Google, kiddies), but they are the same team that won two division titles, and 280 games, in three years.

Williams isn’t Tony LaRussa, but he was NL Manager of the Year last season — yet the Boston Globe ranked him near the bottom of major league managers in preseason rankings. He may never live down taking the ball from Jordan Zimmermann in the ninth inning of Game 2 of last year’s Division Series against the San Francisco 49ers.

But he is not the reason the Nationals are struggling. Let’s remember, last year Ned Yost was the punch line for every baseball writer’s joke in America, yet he managed to get the Kansas City Royals to the World Series — and they look like they are on their way for a return engagement.

It’s not the manager. It’s the players.

One baseball executive believes the Nationals still have what it takes to win the division.

Matt Williams needs to stick with Werth, Zimmerman and [Anthony] Rendon, sink or swim,” he said. “They have the track record and enough time to get hot and help them make the playoffs.”

It is going to get hot, one way or another. Can you take it?

• Thom Loverro is co-host of “The Sports Fix,” noon to 2 p.m. daily on ESPN 980 and espn980.com.


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