Tracee Hamilton
Tracee Hamilton
Columnist

Nationals move back to basement, just when they were getting on their feet

Toni L. Sandys/WASHINGTON POST - Washington Nationals starting pitcher Jordan Zimmermann (27) bites his nails while sitting in the dug out during the game at Nationals Park on Tuesday.

The NFL lockout ended just in time for Davey Johnson and his less-than-plucky Nationals. For a glorious time — you remember, in the Dark Ages before the all-star break — the Nats were a .500 ballclub. And things were looking up. Youngsters were developing as expected, the Nats were the only game in town and beginning to attract attention from the not-so-hard-core fans, whose butts are desperately needed to start filling those empty seats as the Nats begin to develop some traction.

So much for all that. Jim Riggleman suddenly and stunningly walked away; he was replaced by Johnson, who had been an adviser for the team — and the wheels came off the bus. Under Johnson, the Nats dropped to 9-15 with Tuesday night’s loss to the Marlins, the fourth-worst record in baseball during that span.

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The Washington Post's Tarik El-Bashir, Tracee Hamilton and Jonathan Forsythe discuss the Nationals' approach to the July 31 trade deadline and debate Davey Johnson's role in the team's recent slide.

The Washington Post's Tarik El-Bashir, Tracee Hamilton and Jonathan Forsythe discuss the Nationals' approach to the July 31 trade deadline and debate Davey Johnson's role in the team's recent slide.

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That loss also dropped them to 14-22 against NL East opponents and into last place in the division, the baseball equivalent of moving back into your parents’ basement. The Nats had spent a lot of years down there, listening to the washing machine run through its cycles, but they thought they’d finally moved out for good. Instead, they’re refilling the water bed and hooking up Xbox.

Baseball is a streaky, streaky game. Ask the Mariners. Ask the Nats back when they were winning eight straight in June. The Nats seem to think they can reel off a string like that again, and they’ll need to if they are to approach a .500, non-cellar finish, which frankly should have been the minimum expectation for this team in 2011.

The Plan is starting to have all the freshness of the Magna Carta, and what do they have to show for it? If they can’t turn this season around, it’ll be their fourth straight dead last finish in the NL East and sixth in seven seasons. That can’t be part of anyone’s plan.

Has Johnson lost his touch? Has the game passed him by? He’s 68 years old — but that’s 12 years younger than his opposing manager, Jack McKeon, in Thursday’s matinee. Johnson knows more about the game than the entire contents of my baseball bookcase. But I’m sure Nats fans hoped Johnson would be to the Nats what Buck Showalter was to the Orioles last year — when he took over last season, the O’s couldn’t lose. (It’s also worth noting how well that’s worked out for the O’s this season.)

That Showalter bounce hasn’t happened. Instead, Ian Desmond, whose name is being bandied about in trade rumors as Sunday’s deadline approaches, spoke earlier this week about the team needing a spark. Sorry, kid, it’s 162 games, not a marriage. Buy a box of matches already.

I also don’t buy the idea that a manager can somehow “pep talk” a group of adults into winning, even young ones such as the Nats. Sure, throw the bats in the shower and tell them it’s a simple game, but that move works only once (even in the movies).

Trades, though, usually get a team’s attention. The Nats were in a curious position not long ago: a little too good to hold a fire sale, not nearly good enough to stand pat. They haven’t hit fire sale level, nor would I expect General Manager Mike Rizzo to tear up the team he’s painstakingly put together. The Nats feel they are on the cusp of . . . goodness. (True, it doesn’t have the ring of “the cusp of greatness,” but no one here is delusional.)

But Rizzo should (and no doubt will) listen closely to offers for potential targets such as Jason Marquis, Livan Hernandez and even Desmond. A month ago, Nats fans and Nats management hoped this team was improving at a pace that would make the last weekend in July fairly quiet. But a month is a long time, even in a 162-game season. If there’s really no spark in that locker room, then the Nats might want to go shopping for one.

 
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