The Washington Nationals woke up Wednesday morning and, for the first time in weeks, they lost both the title as the team with the best record in baseball and another half-game in the National League East standings to the Atlanta Braves. The cause: a fifth straight defeat, with Tuesday’s loss to the Miami Marlins punctuating a stretch of underwhelming baseball.
The losing streak — a three-game sweep at the hands of the Philadelphia Phillies sandwiched by a losses to the Braves and Marlins — matched a season-high for the Nationals. The last time they lost this many straight games was a stretch in late April when they were swept by the Los Angeles Dodgers and lost games to the San Diego Padres and Arizona Diamondbacks.
Fans accustomed to seeing the Nationals lose a lot are in recent years are likely worrying that their team’s magical rise to the top of baseball was beginning to fall apart, concerned this young team is struggling to handle the pennant race pressure. Yet, consider the following: the Nationals still sit 77-51 (26 games over .500), hold a four-game lead over the Braves in the NL East and are only a fraction of a percentage point away from the best record in baseball. Sure, there has been unfocused play and frustration but few, if any, other teams could have dropped that many consecutive games and still have been in that favorable a position.
“Anytime you start something like this, it’s easy for people outside our clubhouse to think, ‘Oh, here we go. Here’s a big skid,’ ” Adam LaRoche said. “Hopefully guys don’t start buying into it and we’re able to shake it off and come back out. I think it’s also because we haven’t had many of them. Most teams go through this quite a few times in a year, and we haven’t had those.
“As soon as we started bragging about doing so well in a series, we go to Philly and get swept. Really all year, we’ve been able to take a bad beating like tonight and come back and win a couple games and put it behind us. Unfortunately it came right after a sweep in Philly. I can’t say we have the highest of spirits. That just goes along with losing some games in a row.”
It was only three weeks ago when the Nationals had dropped two of three to the Phillies, and after splitting a Aug. 3 double header with the Marlins, held only a two-game lead in the division standings. Their record then: 63-43 (20 games over .500). That was the smallest division lead since Jun. 10. Was there fear then?
Maintaining a seven-game lead over the Braves, as they had before the losing streak started, seemed almost impossible to hold for the rest of the season given the nature of pennant race baseball and how talented Atlanta is. In other words, the Nationals previous 12-3 run gave them the cushion to withstand this current skid. And what has helped for most of the past three months is that many of the times the Nationals lost, the Braves did, too, or couldn’t make up more ground.
Remember that four-game skid in mid-June that included a sweep by the New York Yankees? The Braves lost three times in that span. Remember that three-game skid in late July that included dropping the first two games of the huge series with the Braves? The Nationals had a 3 1/2 game cushion entering that series and claimed the final two games to hold it there. How about now? During this current five-game skid, the Braves have played two more games but lost three of seven.
“To be honest, when is a better time to lose five in a row?” Ian Desmond said. “I mean we’re still in first place. If this is as bad as we can play, it’s only going to get better. A couple hits here and there we’re right in that ballgame and we’ve still got a game to play tomorrow.”
Following Tuesday’s loss, Nationals Manager Davey Johnson showed confidence in his team, despite a recent stretch of little offense.
“That’s just the way things are in baseball,” he said. “As far as I’m concerned, we played really good 99 percent of the year. A rough spot here. But that makes the metal hotter. The tougher it gets, the stronger you get. So we’ll be fine and come back tomorrow and hopefully we get a better-pitched ballgame and swing the bats better.”
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FROM YESTERDAY’S JOURNAL
NATS MINOR LEAGUES
Harrisburg 2, Richmond 1: Anthony Rendon went 1 for 3 with his first triple. Just Bloxom went 2 for 4 with an RBI. Trevor Holder allowed only one run on seven hits over five innings.
Potomac 4, Carolina 1: Adrian Sanchez, Matthew Skole and Kevin Keyes each went 2 for 4. Keyes and Skole combined to drive in the four runs. Matthew Grace allowed only one run on six hits over six innings. Rob Wart notched his 12th save and lowered his ERA to 2.47.
Hagerstown 8, Greensboro 0: Cutter Dykstra and Bryce Ortega went 3 for 4. Ortega finished a single short of the cycle, driving in four runs.
Auburn 16, State College 4: Every starter notched at least a hit, with seven smacked multiple hits. Spencer Kieboom and Carlos Lopez each had three hits. Shawn Pleffner is hitting .341.