“You guys keep asking the question. And we don’t really have an answer,” Zimmermann said. “I think we’re better than everyone out there. It’s not showing.”
In the spring, experts predicted a parade down Pennsylvania Avenue, and scouts scoured the Nationals’ roster for a weakness without success. In the first week after the all-star break, the Nationals lost six straight, a hitting coach lost his job against the manager’s wishes, an 11-0 loss followed a rousing victory and a clubhouse staple lashed out at management.
The Nationals entered Saturday 50-54, only one game closer to the first-place Atlanta Braves than the last-place Miami Marlins. To match last year’s win total, the Nationals would have to finish an absurd 48-10.
“It just shows you that it’s not easy to be good,” third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. “People shouldn’t take that for granted. People should understand how good of a year we had last year. A lot of guys last year had really good years all in the same year. It’s not easy to do that, year in, year out, no matter how good you’re supposed to be on paper.”
The reason behind their crash has vexed players and officials inside and outside the Nationals’ clubhouse. “They should be scoring more than they have,” Los Angeles Dodgers starter Zack Greinke said after he shut the Nationals down last week. General Manager Mike Rizzo has been just as baffled.
“We’re in the midst of trying to assess that,” Rizzo said. “We still think we have two months to figure it out. . . . I still like this ballclub. I still believe in it.”
Some answers skew intangible. “I don’t see the fire and inspiration with the club right now,” said one Nationals official, who was granted anonymity in order to speak freely. “That may go along with not winning. It’s frustrating for us.”
The notion of crumbling under expectations seems too cliche to factor into the answer of why the Nationals have sunk. But “to totally discount it is not telling the truth,” Zimmerman said.
“This year, we weren’t going to surprise anybody,” reliever Tyler Clippard said. “They were kind of gunning for us. That’s how you want it because you can definitely use it to your advantage. But we have to learn how to do that. And I don’t think we’ve done that yet. That’s just a process of figuring out who we are.”
In some regards, the Nationals have been playing worse, not better, as the season has worn on. The pressure from high expectations has turned into pressure to snap out of their malaise — they’re running in quicksand, leading to bad at-bats, especially in the clutch.
“Trying to go up there and hit a three-run homer with nobody on base, over-swinging at times,” center fielder Denard Span said. “I think our approach at times, offensively, I think we’ve put more pressure on ourselves than we’ve needed to.”