VERO BEACH, FLORIDA – How many times in sports have you heard it: As so-and-so goes, so goes team such-and-such?
In the case of the Washington Nationals, outstanding showings by the trio of Stephen Strasburg, Bryce Harper and Jayson Werth seem mandatory if the Nats are to excel.
You can look it up — MAS did.
In this situation, though, you should also include an adjoiner: As the DC3’s health — physical AND mental — goes, so goeth their performance.
When one or more of the trio is hurting or something’s amiss noggin-wise, they struggle and, subsequently, so do the Nats.
Cases in point: the past three seasons.
In 2011, Washington finished 80-81.
Then-rookie pitching phenom Strasburg started off strong (32 strikeouts in his first three outings).
But he tore ligaments in his right pitching elbow on June 1 and missed the rest of the season after undergoing Tommy John surgery.
Outfielder Harper, only 18 years old, was still tearing up the minor leagues.
Meanwhile, right fielder/slugger Werth — who had just left Philadelphia for a $125 million free agent Nats contract — struggled through a .232, 20 homer, 58 RBI campaign.
Jayson admitted to performance anxiety.
“You’re trying to live up to expectations,” Werth explained to MAS. “And it’s a lot harder than people think.
“A lot of guys will tell you that first year of your contract is tough.”
So, with a .500 mark, ’11 was a wash for Washington — not good, not bad.
However, in 2012 the threesome AND the Nationals sizzled. Strasburg, placed on an innings limit after his TJ op, returned to his former overwhelming mound self — but only for the first five months of the season.
By early September, the Nats were a postseason cinch and Strasburg was 15-6 with a 3.16 ERA and 197 strikeouts in 159⅓ innings.
He was then shut down for the season as a safety precaution.
“You just have to believe in your team doctors in a situation like that,” said Strasburg, when MAS asked for his reaction.
But many DC fans, clamoring for that city’s first World Series appearance since 1933, were outraged.
Nineteen-year old Harper, meanwhile, looked like the second coming of Pete “Charlie Hustle” Rose.
He hit .279, clouted 22 homers and was named National League Rookie of the Year (third youngest) — while annoying some with his gung-ho style.
A number of baseball folks feel he piles the ham too high on the sandwich.
This spring, Bryce stood by his potentially self-defeating, take-no-prisoners approach.
“I’m just gonna keep playing every play like it’s my last,” Harper stated emphatically to MAS.
“I really don’t care what you say, what he says or what another guy says.”
Well, excuuuuuuse us, Bryce.
Werth, for his part, hit .300 in just 81 games, after missing the middle part of the season with a broken wrist.
However, Jayson’s hot bat after his August return coincided with a Nats surge that propelled them to their first NL East title.
“That second year you usually see guys start to settle in,” says Werth of his improvement. “You start to feel comfortable in your own skin.”
Alas, in the NL Divisional Series, the Nats — minus their ace Strasburg — fell in five games to St. Louis, leaving the Washington faithful to fume over what might have been.
Then came a disjointed 2013 campaign.
Strasburg was again sensational but the victim of some horrific offensive support.
The righty fireballer went just 8-9 but had one of the NL’s top ERAs — 3.00 — and fanned 191 in 183 innings pitched.
For his part, Harper was busy demolishing the so-called “sophomore jinx” — when healthy.
He clouted 20 HRs while hitting a respectable .274 in 118 games.
But, refusing to tone down his hard-charging style, Harper injured a knee when he lost a collision with an outfield wall in May and missed two months of action.
The Nats floundered while Bryce was out but upon his return, finished strong winning 24 of their last 32 contests, just missing out on a postseason berth.
Werth, meanwhile, blossomed fully (.318, 25 HR, 85 RBI) and even learned to shrug off Philly boo-birds, who were at their nastiest whenever he would return to play.
“After three years, I take it as a sign of respect,” Jayson told MAS.
As Reggie Jackson famously said: They don’t boo nobodies.
Which bring us to the present.
Washington is once again a reflection of the DC3
The Nats trail first-place Atlanta by 1½ games, thanks to solid, if not spectacular, performances from the trio.
Strasburg is currently just 3-3 but with a team-best 3.38 ERA and a dazzling 11.6 strikeouts per nine innings.
This, after yet another pitching wing surgery in the offseason — to clean out bone chips in his elbow.
“I feel really good,” Strasburg told MAS. “You get out of rehab what you put into it and I had a great rehab.”
Werth is hitting .296 with five HRs and the timing of his 19 RBIs make him — according to one of those live-in-a-cave stat geek outfits — the NL’s top clutch hitter (a game-tying, ninth-inning grand slam HR no doubt helped his rating).
Harper, currently injured, was hitting for a .289 average before going down.
But Bryce has also been somewhat enigmatic.
Maybe it was his off-season knee operation (bursa sac removal), but Harper was actually benched once for not hustling — something he apologized profusely for.
And now he’s on the disabled list with torn thumb ligaments — following an all-out headfirst slide.
All of the DC3 indicated to MAS they are in a positive state of mind.
So, here’s a tip: if you want to find out how the Nats are doing this season, don’t bother checking the standings.
Instead, look up the 60-day DL regularly after July 4 — when Harper is due back.
If the three musketeers’ names are missing, Washington will be a contender.
But if any of the Nat principal so-and-sos are on it, count on a so-so finish.
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