By Matt Straub
It’s been a while since we took a look inside the majors and broke down what was going on in baseball. In that time, I’ve come to some conclusions I thought were worth delving into. First, a mea culpa. I was wrong. The New York Mets are going to make the playoffs. I stand by the sound reasoning I had for thinking the Washington Nationals were going to make a big run, but two big things happened which made those points moot.
First, the Mets deserve a lot of credit. Good teams survive against other good teams and clean up against bad teams, which is exactly what the Mets have done. Other than dropping two of three to the Red Sox, the Mets have done their job by hammering the Phillies and Rockies lately. They also rocked the Marlins. I made a lot about how the Mets have struggled against the best teams this year, but that doesn’t matter until the playoffs. New York had to get there first, and they did so by pounding on the teams they’re supposed to beat.
They did, however, have plenty of help.
The Washington Nationals have proven to be the biggest disappointment in baseball this season after falling off a cliff over the last two months. The team once poised to run away with the division has collapsed under the pressure of a pennant race they didn’t want and couldn’t handle. Whether it’s Ryan Zimmerman saying he wouldn’t scoreboard watch in August, ignoring the Mets’ surge past his team, or Bryce Harper saying he didn’t care what the Mets did, the Nationals have been in denial about their own fate for a long time now.
Manager Matt Williams is a joke both in how he manages the bullpen and the team. Every manager has made mistakes with his pitchers, but Williams has refused to light a fire under his team at any point, instead trying too hard not to show he was panicking that he waited until it was too late.
Yes, the Mets surged in front of the Nationals and deserve to be in first, but the Nationals have done nothing to try and keep up.
It’s like a team down 6-0 early who keeps saying “don’t worry, we’re going to score,” then waiting until the 9th inning to realize it was incredibly far behind.
Of course, not everything which has gone wrong with the Nationals has been about “Natattitude.” Max Scherzer never got his act together the way I predicted he would; Stephen Strasburg just can’t say on the field; and the depth in the rotation has been decent at best. Offensively, the team was gutted with injuries, only putting its full lineup on the field a few times, but how many other teams have overcome injuries?
Part of the Nationals’ problem is something I’ve seen become more and more of a factor this year: roster construction. There are so many teams out there who seem close to contending who neglected a part of their team. The Red Sox thought they could get enough hitters to make up for the negligence they showed putting the pitching staff together. The Tigers haven’t had a bullpen in years.
The biggest thing teams fail to achieve, however, is balance. You don’t have to be dominant at any part of the game, but rather good at everything. Look at the Royals. They have enough big names to be good, but more importantly they can do everything well. The Yankees and Twins are solid all around. The teams who can handle every part of the game are the teams thriving these days as opposed to the ones who try and win with one excellent unit.
I fully support going out and getting big names, something I want the Red Sox to do right now with their pitching staff, but you can’t survive in today’s baseball without being able to do it all.
The last thing a team needs now is grit. I’ve never been big on chemistry on baseball. It can definitely help teams like the 2013 Red Sox, but you don’t need it to win. If your team is good, it can hate each other and win, like the Martin-era Yankees did. If your team isn’t tough, however, it can’t win.
The Nationals failed because they weren’t mentally strong enough to admit they were failing. Just as the 2011 Red Sox and countless other teams have in the past, the Nationals melted out of hubris and a belief their talent would overcome everything. The Mets, meanwhile, have shown themselves to be incredibly mentally tough.
What once seemed to be the defining 48 hours of a lost era of Mets baseball is now a footnote to history. We’ll look back now and laugh at the rain delay game and the time Wilmer Flores cried on the field. The Mets didn’t cave when things got tough. Of course it helped when their front office added a bunch of helpful players shortly after the team’s epic two days, but the sweep of Washington which came immediately after was the moment the season changed. In those three games, the Mets didn’t show they were better than the Nationals. They still aren’t. They showed they were tougher and cared more, which sometimes matters more.
The Mets can do a little bit of everything, and they can do it when it matters most. That’s why they’re going to win the division, and why your makeup matters more than the names on your roster.
And why I was dead wrong.