In order for the Nationals to win 89 games – the average victory total for a team to make the postseason under the current format – they would have to play at a .583 winning percentage for the remainder of the season. The Nationals have offered no hint they could sustain that pace.
The most basic, and often most powerful, indicator of a team’s future performance is run differential — the number of runs a team has scored against the number it has allowed. The Nationals have been outscored by 34 runs, better than only eight of the 30 major league teams. They have played worse, not better, recently, winning only six of their past 17 games. And with Harper out of the starting lineup this year, the Nationals have gone 4-12.
In total, nine players, including Harper, Strasburg, Werth and third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, have missed a combined 219 days on the disabled list to date. The ailments have contributed to subpar performance across the board. The Nationals have scored fewer than all but one team, and no team reaches base with less frequency. Their defense has committed the second-most errors in the majors, led by Zimmerman’s 10, nine of which can be attributed to chronic throwing issues. Their reserves alleviated a rash of injuries last year; this year, it has only exacerbated them.
In his final year as the Nationals’ manager, Johnson, 70, has gone to desperate measures. In mid-May, he tried to coax more runs out of his lineup by growing a scraggly, white goatee, which he vowed not to shave until the Nationals had busted out. His wife, Susan, offered the following appraisal: “Oh, jeez.” Johnson finally shaved Tuesday night, after their first walk-off victory of the year. The next day, the Mets clobbered them.
Everything that could go wrong has gone wrong, but last year’s magic has still drawn fans in droves. The Nationals have averaged 33,439 fans at Nationals Park, more than 3,000 more per game than last year. Across Major League Baseball, only the Baltimore Orioles have seen a more dramatic increase in attendance.
While attendance is up, the team’s poor play seems to be generating more apathy than outrage. Danny Rouhier, who co-hosts a morning sports talk show on 106.7 The Fan, the team’s official broadcast partner, said a year ago fans clogged phone lines to discuss Harper’s ascendance, Strasburg’s innings limit and the Nationals’ first playoff race. On opening day this year, the show had “locked and loaded [phone] lines.”
As the Nationals’ losses piled up, “we’ve just sort of had to push it to the back burner,” Rouhier said. Caller volume slows when the Nationals arise as a topic, he said, and ratings shrink.
“We’ve had to move away from the amount of Nats conversation we’d like to have,” Rouhier said. “One of my missions is to make D.C. baseball popular. Without the team living up to their end of the bargain, it’s tougher and tougher to do that.”
Rouhier said the team’s most loyal fans remain just as fervent. At many games this season, though, the team’s supporters have fled Nationals Park before the last out. The dreary conditions of the past two days offered a brief reprieve, but the rain could not wash the reality of a once-promising season nearing the brink.