"Sometimes when the same person keeps giving the message, it starts to fall on deaf ears." -- Jim Riggleman, on his post-game meeting with the team.
The Washington Nationals have 19 games remaining in the 2010 season. If they win three of them, they will avoid losing 100 games for the third straight season. It's little solace for Nats fans that harbored illusions of a wild-card berth when the team got off to a 20-15 start.
Since then, the Nats have gone 40-68, a .370 winning percentage. All those losses make for a long season, and if you pile on Stephen Strasburg's injury, Nyjer Morgan's bouts of immaturity and Adam Dunn's looming contract status, one could understand if this Nationals team continues to limp down the stretch, playing out the string in another miserable season record-wise.
It's human nature to underperform in unpleasant working conditions, but Nats fans don't want to hear that after they were promised at the beginning of the season that this year was "about results." Fans are tired of hearing the same platitudes heaped upon the opposing starting pitcher, and the "we played hard" mantra night after night after night.
After today's loss -- No. 83 on the season -- a 6-5 decision to the Florida Marlins, Manager Jim Riggleman held an "All Hands On Deck" meeting with his players and coaches. It's something he's done before this season, but after what the thought was a lackluster effort from his squad, he felt like he needed to get some thing out in the air.
"I just thought our energy level, our body language early in the game, was not up to the standards it's going to take for us to be a ballclub that goes to the next level. I just didn't feel like we were getting after it early," Riggleman said.
He asked for input from his coaching staff as well, and described the meeting to reporters after the game. "This is what I see, this is what the coaches see, this is what Mike [Rizzo] sees, this is what the fans see, so if anybody in the room thought that was acceptable, then they need to be made aware that we certainly don't think it's acceptable."
While the words were appropriate given the situation and the sloppy play against the Marlins -- and five consecutive losses -- one has to wonder if they were effective to their intended audience.
Seven-plus months and a 162-game schedule makes for a very long season. But how many times do you need to remind players that are playing for their jobs to play hard?
"I think the losing wears on you, but it's a 162-game schedule, it's a nine inning ballgame. That's what you sign up for, that's what you give."
Riggleman then gave an unsolicited critique of the situation in the Nationals clubhouse.
"Until we get everybody on the same page, it's takes a great effort every day to get out of where we are, it's just not gonna happen. This can't happen. You cannot go to the level that teams such as the Padres, Giants, Yankees, Tampa Bay, you know those teams who are going to be right there at the end, you cannot be in the same class as them until you have everybody on board pulling the same way and putting personal statistics behind them, milestones behind them and all that nonsense, you know.
Until everybody's pulling the same direction and getting after it every day it's not gonna show up in the win column."
"If you're an elite team in baseball, you can have a day where the energy level isn't where it [should be] and it kinda goes under the radar, but it don't go under the radar when you have lost 100 for a couple years in a row."
The Nationals have an interesting blend of players on this team. There are a few veterans whose spots for next year are assured. There are younger players who are trying to establish themselves as everyday players. And there are players who do not figure long-term and are trying to impress another organization to give them a job next spring training.
But there are also players who are riding the bench when they've been starters most of their careers. There are arms in the bullpen that have gone over a week without pitching. There are starting pitchers that have been unhappily relegated to the bullpen.
And the clean-up hitter has been mired in a second-half slump that coincides with him not getting a contract extension.
Earlier this season, GM Mike Rizzo indicated that Riggleman would be the field manager for 2011.
But has this group of players already tuned him out? Riggleman actually said in his post-game press conference, "Sometimes when the same person keeps giving the message, it starts to fall on deaf ears."
Has his handling of the Morgan situation, continuing to trot out the enigmatic center fielder despite repeated maturity lapses, soured his relationship with the players that act like adults? Has Riggleman's reluctance to put up a "stop sign" on Morgan cost him with others on the squad who play the game "the right way"?
Has his heavy hand with the starting pitchers damaged his standing there? After John Lannan was pulled in a game a few weeks ago, he was asked about the burden on the bullpen having to pitch four innings a night, and he replied surprisingly tersely, "I've got nothing to say about that, because that's just the way our manager manages, and that's it."
Has his communication skills with veteran starting pitchers and backup position players losing playing time to younger players eroded confidence in him in the locker room?
In the first half of the season, Riggleman said often after losses that his team hadn't "played their best baseball yet" and that this was the most talented Nationals team since the move. Yet, the team arguably played worse as the season went along.
So if the manager was convinced the team was capable of better play all season long, why haven't they?
The simple truth is that this team isn't as good as their 20-15 start made them appear. In each of the last two seasons, the Nats had 35 game stretches where their record was comparable to the "quick start" the Nats got off to this season. Those stretches were just buried in the middle of the seasons, mired in 100-loss campaigns.
The problem was this season the Nationals "played their best baseball" the first five weeks of the season, and the manager just didn't realize it. And now he's left to defend on a nightly basis his "underperforming" team, one by his own admission that is now tuning him out.
NEXT GAME: The Nationals travel to Atlanta for three games with the division-challenging Braves. Yunesky Maya makes his second start of the season against Derek Lowe (12-12, 4.42) from Turner Field at 7:10 pm.