(Justin Lane/EPA)

In columnist Thomas Boswell’s online chat this morning, he was asked: “It’s not so much the record, as it it the way the Nats are playing. Is it time to worry yet? When do the sloppy defense, spotty pitching and poor situational hitting become part of the Nats’ identity?”

Here’s what Boz had to say:

The Nats are playing poorly. Not atrociously. But they are lucky to be 10-8. Their actual play probably deserves 8-10 or worse. They are overanxious at the plate in tight games, like Werth swinging at a 3-0 pitcher’s pitch in the 8th on Sunday to kill a rally with a GIDP. They make base-running blunders or misjudgments, like Span getting throw out at 2nd by 8 feet on Sunday. Or they make errors on simple plays, like Desmond’s wide throw to 1st on Sunday. Or they have a lapse of concentration, like Harper’s embarrassing misplay of a routine single yesterday. Or they have an almost team-wide case of poor command of pitches, which sometimes means you’re just trying too hard.As is almost always the case when good teams play this way, it is NOT aa case of not trying hard enough or not caring enough. It is almost always the opposite — trying too hard, trying to “pick up the team” too much by doing too much yourself. It’s just April, for crying out loud. Just relax and play the game and enjoy. But that is far harder to do than to say.

I tweeted yesterday during the game that:  “the Nats must make 3-4-5 brutal mental mistakes or errors on easy plays in most of their games. 5 today. Pressing in April. Expectations rob joy.”

I got an e-mail after the game from a Nationals fan who said that she felt the team missed Michael Morse’s loose presence and felt it was obvious that the Nats were pressing, trying too hard, burdened by expectations — a team of analytical introverts who “need a clown” to help them relax.

I think that’s probably close to the case but not something that’s going to be as easily fixed as a few practical jokes or more chuckles on the bench. The Nats may miss Mark DeRosa as much as Morse.He was smart (Wharton degree), tough (Penn QB) and funny in a clubhouse way that seemed spontaneous but was also always part of setting team tone. It’s rare to see a player who doesn’t produce much, like DeRosa, who’s part of chemistry.

BUT the primary problem, IMO, is not the absence of Morse (or any one else). It’s the introduction of high expectations, criticism, judgment, Game 5. Some teams aren’t especially bothered by it. The Nats seem to be. You can’t know its importance until you see it play out. The reason that “expectations rob joy” is kind of a cliche is because it’s true. The Nats will have to learn to deal with it.

If anything, Morse is the type (secret worrier) who would have problems with this. (He’s down to .219 in Seattle.) LaRoche less so. We’ll see how it works out, whether it costs the Nationals a nervous disappointing month or contaminates a large part of the season. I’d guess the former. I can’t tell you how often I’ve seen highly-touted teams start the year frustrating themselves and their fans for 100 or more games; the players are much more bothered, usually, than any fan, but they don’t show it often. You can make a long list of teams that started a year 52-50, then finished 40-20 to go 92-70, then made the post-season and went a long way. But, obviously, that’s not what anybody wants. The Nats 14-4 start last year was a perfect example of a team using a fast start to get a slingshot lead in winning its division. The Braves are doing the same thing now at 13-5. It’s only three games but it IS three games. BTW, Atlanta is going through a total team hitting slump right now with injuries (McCann, Freeman) and tons of strikeouts.

I’ll be interested to see if playing the (hated) Cards snaps the Nationals out of their sloppy play funk. The Cards said some very uncomplimeentary things after Game Fives in the St. Louis media. It would be a rare team in any sport that didn’t remember an opponents that said they “couldn’t breath” or that claimed they “knew” they would overcome a 6-0 deficit because of the way the other team was playinmg. Even if they thought it was true — even if it is true — it’s poor judgment to say it. Let those lousy “critics” throw the rotten tomatoes. Too bad Gio Gonzalez doesn’t get to pitch in this series. He shut out the Cards in regular season last year, then walked 11 in 10 IP in the playoffs against essentially the same lineup. And he had another inexplicable control meltdown vs the Mets on Saturday in giving up a 3-0 lead in a game the Nats eventually won.

The Nats “identity” really does exist and goes back beyond ’12. They played up to their talent in ’11, too, and their clubhouse mix was part of the reason. The correct operating assumption is that they start “playing like themselves” soon. But they better. Between now and June 2 — six weeks — they play the Cards (3), Reds (4), Braves (6), Tigers (2), Dodgers (3), Giants (3), Phils (3) and O’s (4). Those 28 games are as tough as ALL of the rest of the ’13 schedule.

If they play as they have so far, they will certainly not be at .500 on June 2nd. If they play as they are capable of playing, they will be well over .500 by then and may pick up steam the rest of the season.

So, there’s my column-length answer to a short, but on-the-money question.