Are the Nationals playing tense?

Patrick Semansky/AP

Patrick Semansky/AP

Ian Desmond, one of the Nationals’ leaders, and Manager Davey Johnson talk often about the goings-on of the team. After Tuesday loss, their third in four games and one that dropped them below .500 for the fifth time, Desmond wanted to speak with Johnson about a serious matter. According to Johnson, Desmond felt the Nationals were not as loose this season as last year’s magical 98-win season.

Johnson didn’t disagree.

“We’re awfully young,” Johnson said. “We got some young guys on the bench. They have to go through the experience. That’s part of it. But I think we’ll be fine. Play loose. Free and easy. We’ve shown signs that we’re getting close.”

Johnson’s thoughts before Tuesday’s game echoed similar sentiments earlier in the season. The Nationals, as a whole, are dealing with expectations for the first time. They were anointed World Series favorites before the season. While they crept up on opponents last season, that hasn’t been the case this year. The encore performance had hurdles that required adjustments that just haven’t been made. What worked in 2012 — the bench, offense, defense and bullpen — hasn’t worked as well in 2013.

“You guys [reporters] got them all nervous,” Johnson said, with a smirk. “A lot of guys are trying to make their mark up here, established up here. It’s part of what you go through. Last year was a very exceptional year, young guys came up and played very well. [Bryce] Harper came up. Tyler Moore. [Steve] Lombardozzi. This year, with some injuries, they pressed in there. I think they are learning that other clubs look at you a little differently. Pitch you a little differently. And you gotta make adjustments the second time around.”

Last season, the Nationals were a loose bunch, enjoying the fun that accompanied winning. But this season, the clubhouse after games has been quieter and more frustrated, a byproduct of losing. Before games, there hasn’t been a noticeable difference other than perhaps slightly little less music and joking, both traits of Michael Morse, who was traded, and Mark DeRosa, who left via free agency. Johnson said he told Desmond that there was plenty of time left to correct the early stumbles.

“Sometimes I look at things to happen for a reason,” Johnson said. “I think this is good. Struggle. Learn to come back … Desi likes to lead by example. And sometimes when you try to do too much you have to try and stay within yourself. And he knows that. And I think other guys try to do the same thing. I think the focus is on doing the things that got you here and stay within that. Sometimes it’s hard.”

But what could be done to loosen the group? How can Johnson, or others, break the tension and feel less pressure?

“I don’t think I’m putting too much pressure on them,” said Johnson, who, not to be forgotten, dubbed this season “World Series or bust” this winter. “I know they got the talent. It’s part of experience. When you get to the top of the hill, it’s a lot of times tougher to stay there. You have to go through struggles. And that’s what they’re going through.”

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