The most surprising thing about the Nationals’ ragged start may not be how poorly they have played, how they have parlayed a staggering array of talent into mediocrity. No, the truly surprising aspect of the Nationals’ April might be that, after three weeks of playing somewhere close to as bad as their ability will let them, they are actually in decent shape.
Forget, for a moment, the 18 errors in 18 games, the maddening rotation, the 5.04 bullpen ERA, the three shutout losses, the negative-14 run differential, Dan Haren’s first three starts and the taste in your mouth. Forget all that. Look at the standings. The Nationals have managed a 10-8 record despite all of their woes. The Cardinals have the same record, and the Reds are only a half game better, at 11-8. The Braves just got swept by the Pirates, which leveled their record at a still-impressive 13-5.
The Nationals’ record, of course, is bloated by their 5-1 record against the Marlins, who may have a historically bleak offense. Against all other opponents, the Nationals are 5-7. In those 12 games, they’ve been outscored by a whopping 30 runs. However, wins against the Marlins still count as wins, and beating up on them is not insignificant. The NL East may well come down to which teams can best pummel Miami.
Still, the Nationals are fully aware they have disappointed so far. “This is unacceptable right now,” first baseman Adam LaRoche said. Jayson Werth added, “We haven’t played very good, in all facets.”
The Nationals done a lot poorly, but they have done enough to win 10 games. Bryce Harper has a 216 OPS+ and is tied with Chris Davis and Justin Upton for the MLB lead in WAR, per FanGraphs. Their catchers are slugging .582. Ross Detwiler and Jordan Zimmermann have been excellent. Again: 10-8. With just one week of ditching bad habits, the Nationals should be where they want. They still have enough talent, by a large margin, to overcome the kind of 18-game stretch that, if it happened in July, would not seem nearly as dreadful.
“Over 162, with this much talent, it won’t last,” LaRoche said. “We’ll go out there and have some really hot stretches. We won’t be able to help it, with the kind of caliber of players we’ve got.”
The coming stretch will help define the Nationals’ season, and whether their slow start is only a rough patch or a more telling trend. Starting today, the Nationals will play 11 games in 11 days against the Cardinals, Reds and Braves, who are probably the Nationals’ three toughest National League opponents. The Nationals are probably a very good team that is playing badly. They just need to prove it.