DENVER — The old baseball adage, its credibility built on years of empirical evidence, says this: When it comes to the streaks and slumps of a six-month season, things are never as good as they feel when they are going well and never as bad as they feel when they are not. That sentiment brings teams solace in early spring, and did as the Nationals began their season 2-6, then 7-13. It eases stress a bit in July, and did so to some extent when the Nationals wrapped up that month as a losing one. Plenty of time left. Nobody panic.
But on late-August nights, as autumn approaches and the New York Mets maintain their grip on the division lead, that adage does little to dissipate the tension. The vaunted Nationals are in an unanticipated fight for their playoff existence. Go ahead, assign blame for four and a half months of underachieving, because the team arrived in Denver with a stunning losing record. But hold off on any proclamations about a lost season, because this one does not yet qualify. Things are not (quite) as bad as they feel. The end may be near for the Nationals, but it does not arrive for a few weeks yet. Perhaps, for reasons shown below, they will be able to avert it.
The division-leading Mets have one of the easier schedules of any National League team the rest of the way. They face two teams with winning records, though that does not currently count the Nationals. But Washington faces three winning teams — the Cardinals, Orioles and Mets — and does so with more home games than any team besides the Reds. Of the Nationals’ final 45 games, 27 (60 percent) come at home, where they are eight games over .500.
Of those 45 games, 22 come against National League East teams. The Nationals are 27-20 against the Braves, Marlins, Mets and Phillies this season. They have a losing record against the Marlins, whom they’ll play seven times in September. These were the teams the Nationals, when whole, were supposed to pummel. Washington, now whole, will get the chance to do so when they need to most, when those division opponents — now non-contenders — will be playing for very little outside of pride. Though the Nationals — perhaps more than anyone in baseball right now — will be playing for that, too.
Additionally, though the Nationals must beat the best of baseball’s starters to win in October, they will not have to do so to get there. As they plummeted from 10 games over .500 on July 17 to a game under .500 a month later, the Nationals faced the following list of starting pitchers in chronological order:
Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke, Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, Francisco Liriano, Jeff Locke, A.J. Burnett, Gerrit Cole, Jose Fernandez, Tom Koehler (whom they beat), Dan Haren (whom they beat), Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard.
Then the Nationals struggled against the Diamondbacks and Rockies, seven games at home between two grueling road trips that hastened their descent as returning regulars like Anthony Rendon, Jayson Werth and Ryan Zimmerman struggled to hit their way back into form. Washington needed home victories over those middling-to-bad teams because up next, on another 10-game road trip, came the following opposing starters:
Brett Anderson, Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke, Ryan Vogelsong, Matt Cain, Jake Peavy, Madison Bumgarner.
The Nationals’ rotation was supposed to stand up against competition like that. It didn’t, and the offense built to score just enough didn’t, either. Perhaps there is reason for optimism there, too.
REGRESSION TO THE MEAN
Start with the rotation, because hope springs eternal there (or at least it will for the next few weeks). Max Scherzer will not pitch three shaky innings every time he starts. His recent trouble with the home run (eight allowed in his last four starts) is not a trend borne out over the course of his career (151 allowed in 222 career starts).
Stephen Strasburg has allowed three earned runs and struck out 20 in his 13 innings since returning from the disabled list. Gio Gonzalez struggled after his longest outing of the season. Jordan Zimmermann nearly outdueled Kershaw with seven shining innings at Chavez Ravine. Joe Ross was not exactly pulverized as he allowed five runs in Los Angeles, though he did struggle Sunday in San Francisco. He has no track record to lean on. Scherzer does, and if he can pitch to his resume, the Nationals can pair him with healthy Strasburg for the first time all season — without having to face the top-of-the-line rotations they faced over the last month.
As for the lineup …
The Nationals have a minus-25 run differential since July 31. They have a .222 batting average since the all-star break, worst in baseball. They have scored 107 runs in the second half, fifth-fewest in the majors. Their .652 OPS is the second-worst in the National League in that time. Only the Braves have reached base and slugged their way around less.
But the Braves were not supposed to hit. The Nationals were, and for good reason. According to FanGraphs, Anthony Rendon, Jayson Werth, Ian Desmond, Wilson Ramos and Ryan Zimmerman combined to provide 18.2 Wins Above Replacement in 2014. This year? minus-0.7.
Put whatever stock you want in WAR, but look at it this way: Werth is a career .273 hitter (though whether or not he can be that hitter again remains to be seen) who’s currently hitting .184. Zimmerman, who started this road trip strong, is a career .282 hitter who’s hitting .219. Rendon, the reigning Silver Slugger at third base, is hitting .247, unable to find consistent form as he works into midseason comfort with a second-half spring training spent facing aces.
Desmond is turning his season around. Ramos is not hitting to his record. The unofficial law of baseball averages suggests hitters, if healthy, regress to the mean eventually. If a few of them do, this Nationals lineup — which did show the ability to fight back at times over the past week — will get better. If they don’t, arguments for Danny Espinosa and Clint Robinson and the rest of the supporting cast that held the team together all this time will gain even more weight. Those players can spell the regulars, who it seems will get the chance to play this out. If the regulars turn it around, Manager Matt Williams’s decision to let them hit their way out of it will look prescient. If they don’t, well …
Less formidable pitching will help. Denard Span, who began playing in rehab games and is the unquestioned catalyst of the Nationals’ lineup, could help, too — though he also will be working to find comfort at the plate if he returns from back problems, so the Nationals hope he can come back in time to do so.
A DAY OFF, SOME MOUNTAIN AIR
The Nationals finally got a day off Monday. They had played 20 straight days over two three-city road trips, trying to claw out of a growing sinkhole all the while.
The problem with baseball, with streaks and slumps, is that they don’t end because someone woke up and tried harder. Gripping the bat more tightly, swinging more mightily and thinking more determinedly tends to exacerbate the problem. In baseball, in slumps, one does not wake up one day and decide to kick down the door to better things. Consistent effort and as much confidence as can be mustered must wait together for the breeze — a bloop, a break, a big hit — that pushes that door open and leaves everyone wondering what was so hard about all of this in the first place.
Perhaps that breeze will blow down off the Rockies and into Coors Field on Tuesday. If it doesn’t, if things truly are as bad as they seem, there will be plenty of time to think about it this winter, to tar and feather those responsible. Big changes do not seem likely. These Nationals, the ones around whom expectations were built from the start, have six weeks to prove they deserved them, and that things are not as bad as they seem.
IN THE POST
On the Nationals’ brutal late-summer swoon, the transformation of title contenders to division hopefuls, and who is to blame.
NATIONALS MINOR LEAGUES
Pawtucket 6, Syracuse 1: A four-run sixth doomed Chiefs starter Paolo Espino, who fell to 5-6. Second baseman Manny Burriss and right fielder Caleb Ramsey had two hits each for Syracuse.
Bowie 7, Harrisburg 3: Austin Voth allowed two runs in five innings in which he struck out six, but Abel de los Santos and Bryan Harper struggled in relief, allowing five combined runs in the eighth and ninth. Wilmer Difo went 2 for 5.
Hickory 3, Hagerstown 2 (11): Hickory scored the go-ahead run in the top of the 11th, spoiling 4 2/3 innings from starter Erick Fedde, who struck out four in the no-decision. Second-round pick Andrew Stevenson went 3 for 5 with a run scored to improve his Suns average to .312.