Why the Nationals still have a chance

In Sunday’s birdcage liner, we examined why the Nationals’ season, one adorned with colossal expectation, had been careening along with one wheel in the ditch. The first four months have been rough, and even after winning four of five and thumping the Mets on Sunday, the Nationals stand 52-54.

Just because the Nationals have sputtered and gagged to this point doesn’t mean they’re finished, and just because they have underperformed so far does not mean they can or should be written off. The rest of the National League East has kept the door cracked for them, and now it’s a matter of whether they’re good enough, and have enough time left, to take advantage.

So, we’ve looked at why they’re at this point. Now, let’s consider why they still have a shot.

The first thing to keep in mind is, the Nationals’ chances to win the division lie in the Braves’ hands more than their own. If the Braves play just .500 in their remaining 57 games, they would finish with 88 or 89 wins. In order to reach 90 wins, the Nationals need to finish 38-18 – a .679 winning percentage. With a strong finish, the Braves can effectively cinch first place.

(The Nationals sit seven games behind the Reds for the second wild card spot, with the Diamondbacks 2 ½ games ahead of them. It’s another entry point, but since claiming a wild card spot gives you a 50-50 shot to get into the real playoffs, we’re just going to focus on Washington’s chances in the NL East.)

The Braves are riding high after an impressive weekend sweep of the mighty Cardinals. Still, since their 12-1 start, the Braves have gone 48-44, hardly indicative of a powerhouse. Now they face two months without rotation stalwart Tim Hudson. They have depth in their rotation, but their want for a true ace and a lineup chocked full of strikeouts makes them vulnerable. They could have another 12-1 spurt in them if some of their talented hitters ditch slumps. But even a .500 record for the Braves isn’t a guarantee.

The biggest factor working against the Nationals may be the Braves’ schedule. Fifty of the Braves’ last 57 games will come against teams currently under .500 – and that includes nine games against the Nationals.

Those nine games will be the most important of the Nationals’ season. If the Nationals can take, say, seven wins in those nine games, the Nationals could at least wrest some of their own fate from Atlanta’s control. That’s a tough task, but it’s what the Nationals require at this point.

As luck would have it, the current alignment of the Nationals rotation will allow Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann to pitch against the Braves on Aug. 5, 6 and 7 at Nationals Park. The Nationals then have two off days between six games before going to Atlanta on Aug. 16, 17 and 18.

The Nationals should align their top three starters to face the Braves again. Davey Johnson has shown a reluctance to fiddle with his rotation, but their games against Atlanta are important enough to stray from standard procedure.

The Nationals, of course, need to handle their own business in conjunction with help from Atlanta. They can start with prolonging what they’ve done well. Strasburg, Gonzalez and Zimmermann have all had tremendous seasons. The Nationals have gone 36-27 in their starts, even as Strasburg and Gonzalez have been criminally under-supported.

They should make around 35 more starts combined, if Johnson can finagle an extra start or two out of them with off days. If the Nationals can go 25-10 in those starts – a tall ask, but not out of the question – they’d need to go 13-8 in their other 21 games to reach 90 wins.

That raises the Nationals’ most promising development of the weekend. The back of the Nationals’ rotation, between Dan Haren’s ineffectiveness and Ross Detwiler’s injury, has been a major factor in the Nationals’ struggles to this point. But it’s shown signs of turning around. For a symbolic one, the Nationals have won three straight games not started by Strasburg, Gonzalez and Zimmermann for the first time since Detwiler, John Lannan and Brad Peacock did it in September 2011.

There are more substantive signs, too. In four starts since he came off the disabled list, Haren has a 3.13 ERA. Taylor Jordan has been solid in six starts, and Ross Ohlendorf and his sweeping wind-up has been a revelation, spotting mid-90s fastballs and wicked sliders on the black. In 33 2/3 major league innings, including the seven brilliant frames during which he kept pace with Matt Harvey on Saturday, Ohlendorf has a 1.83 ERA.

The Nationals’ offense has been a bigger problem than their pitching all year, but they received some encouragement there, too. Their left-handed hitting has been one of their biggest flaws, particularly Denard Span putting up the worst season of his career. Over the week, Span belted the first two homers, Sunday’s home run coming in a four-hit game. It’s perhaps too tiny of a sample to take seriously. But the fact that he twice hit the ball out of the park two straight days – after not coming close for four months – suggests he’s unlocked something with his swing, which he has said never clicked for him all year.

Bryce Harper also showed signs of breaking out. He really hasn’t been himself since late April, when he crashed into the wall in Atlanta. In his past five games, Harper has gone 5 for 18 with two homers and six RBI. Again, it’s perhaps too small of a sample to regard with any seriousness. But if Harper is splattering the ball, the Nationals are a different team. When Harper is reaching it allows him to display his energy, and the Nationals seem to feed off that.

The Nationals have helped themselves by holding together in the clubhouse. There has been some public vitriol pointed at the front office, but not within the players. Even the controversies of the past week – Johnson’s passionate defending of Rick Eckstein and Tyler Clippard sticking up for Drew Storen – seemed to be more about closing ranks in the clubhouse than internal bickering.

“There’s definitely no issues in the clubhouse,” Haren said last week. “There’s no pointing fingers, really. As much as I’ve struggled this year, the guys have really had my back. They’re fighting for me, pushing for me. There’s definitely no issues like that.”

The Nationals also may finally be getting over the mental hurdles they have faced all season. The ugliness of the first week after the break may have finally allowed the Nationals to reach a point where they let go a little bit. After Sunday’s thrashing of the Mets, Denard Span tweeted, “Today was a lot of fun! Time to relax.”

“If you had a really good year, a career year, and then all of a sudden things don’t start out or go a little rough to begin with, guys that don’t have as much experience have a hard time trusting everything will be okay,” Ryan Zimmerman said. “They might try to do too much, or might try and change things when they really should have let it play out the way it was going.

“Overall, the attitude and everything is the same as last year. We all get here. We all work. We unfortunately haven’t been able to produce every day like we were last year.

“We have a good group of guys. We all get along pretty well. It’s tougher to get along and be the way we were last year when things have gone the way they have this year. I think the biggest we all learned is, you got to be the same when things are going good and when thing are going bad. The reason this team is not winning is not because we’re not working hard and not trying hard.”

If all of this seems overly optimistic, that’s kind of the point. We’re talking about what needs to happen for the Nationals to overtake the Braves, and they have put themselves in a position where pretty much everything needs to go right. It’s still pretty bleak. The Nationals have to thread a lot of needles between now and October, and even if they do the Braves could still leave them in the dust if they take advantage of an easy schedule. They have left themselves in a difficult situation. But it’s not an impossible one, at least not yet.

FROM THE POST

Taylor Jordan and a monster offensive day lifted the Nationals to the most lopsided win in team history, James Wagner writes.

FROM YESTERDAY’S JOURNAL

Rotation set for Braves’ series

McCatty hospitalized

Span’s newfound aggressiveness

NATS MINOR LEAGUES

Syracuse 2, Indianapolis 1: Will Rhymes went 2 for 3 with a walk. Zach Walters went 1 for 3 with a double and committed his 24th error. Tanner Roark allowed no runs in 7 2/3 innings on five hits and one walk, striking out five. After early struggles, Roark has lowered his ERA to 3.16 by posting a 1.85 ERA in his last 10 starts. … For Drew Storen, the plan is to join the Chiefs on Tuesday in Louisville.

Portland 3, Harrisburg 2: Nate Karns allowed three runs in eight innings on five hits and four walks, striking out eighth. Jose Lozada went 2 for 3 with a double and two walks. Brian Goodwin went 1 for 5 with four strikeouts.

Potomac 6, Salem 4: Kevin Keyes went 1 for 4 with a grand slam. Randolph Oduber went 2 for 3 with a double and a walk.

Hagerstown 5, Delmarva 1: Narcisco Mesa went 2 for 4 with a double. Brandon Miller went 2 for 4. Ian Dickson allowed on run over six innings on four hits and a walk, striking out five. Bryan Harper, Bryce’s brother, struck out one in a perfect inning.

Auburn 5, Jamestown 2: Jimmy Yezzo went 2 for 4. Bryan Lippincott went 1 for 4 with a home run. Ryan Ullmann allowed no earned runs in six innings on six hits and no walks, striking out two.

The Nationals’ Gulf Coast League affiliate is an absurd 25-6.

Adam Kilgore covers national sports for the Washington Post. Previously he served as the Post's Washington Nationals beat writer from 2010 to 2014.
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James Wagner · July 28, 2013

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