So what do we expect now? What’s the reworked framework of our anticipation? The number grinders say the Nats, who trail the Braves by 7½ games in the NL East and even trail the Pirates by 5½ games for the second wild-card spot, have about a 25 percent chance at the playoffs.
What I’ve learned is that, in baseball, you shouldn’t turn your analysis on its head every time it starts to look stupid. Better to be dumb just once. In ’78, I covered every game between the Red Sox and Yankees. On July 17, Boston led by 14 games. On Sept. 16, less than two months later, the Red Sox trailed the Yankees by 3½ games. They ended up tied.
From that, I learned this: Don’t tell baseball what it can and can’t do. Two years later, the Orioles started 28-30, slightly worse than where the Nats are now. Having learned nothing, I wrote them off. They ended up winning 100.
The Nats may be on the cusp of a historically disappointing season. As I wrote in March, 11 teams in the past 50 years have won as many or more games than the Nats’ 98 last season yet finished below .500 the following year. Will the Nats be No. 12? They are certainly trying to play like it.
But with 100 games left in the Nats season, I suspect this is the better question: What’s broken about this team that can’t be fixed in two weeks?
The answer is: nothing.
Before June is over, Harper and Wilson Ramos are expected off the disabled list. Then the Nats may have a healthy lineup of Denard Span, Jayson Werth, Harper, Ryan Zimmerman, Adam LaRoche, Ian Desmond, Anthony Rendon and Ramos. That lineup is more likely to score 4.5 runs a game than its current 3.5. The Nats averaged 4.51 last year after a very slow start.
With Strasburg and Ross Detwiler off the disabled list this week, the Nats will have a rotation that includes possible NL All-Star Game starter Jordan Zimmermann and 21-game winner Gio Gonzalez, backed by relievers Rafael Soriano, Tyler Clippard, Drew Storen and Craig Stammen. That remains one of baseball’s best staffs. By then the bench will be deep.
However, the Nats do have real problems that will have to be solved — by the trade deadline or next year. If this 31-31 start has no other use, it can serve to underline mistakes.
The Nats began this year with expectations — too many of them, as it turns out. They expected Haren was a high-character star who would bounce back after his first bad year. Instead, he looks like a $13 million free agent bust whose stuff, dwindling for four years, finally has run out of steam. He’s getting worse, with a 5.86 ERA in his last six starts, not better.