SAN FRANCISCO — The reality is as jarring as it sounds: The Washington Nationals — winners of two of the past three National League East division titles, with one of the best collections of talent in baseball and a team-record $165 million payroll — have a losing record 117 games into the season.
Entering a three-game series against the Colorado Rockies beginning Tuesday night in Denver, Washington has lost six straight and is 41/2 games behind the New York Mets in the NL East. With seven weeks left in the regular season, the Nationals are in this position for many reasons: inconsistency throughout the lineup, underperforming players and injuries.
But they also find themselves in danger of missing the playoffs because of several decisions made by the front office and Manager Matt Williams: assembling a bullpen with too many inexperienced and ineffective relievers, sitting role players who performed admirably for injured stars earlier in the season as the underperforming veterans work their way back into playing form, and the handling of the pitching staff.
“It’s on everybody,” said reliever Matt Thornton, the most senior player on the Nationals. “Everybody involved. We’ve got to do a better job as a team. And team goes from top to bottom. And we’re not doing that right now.”
On July 5, the Nationals — with Jayson Werth, Anthony Rendon, Ryan Zimmerman and Stephen Strasburg on the disabled list, and Denard Span soon to join them — held a season-high 41/2-game lead on the Mets. Since then, the Nationals are 12-23 and have suffered a nine-game swing in the standings. Since the all-star break, the Nationals are hitting a major league-worst .222 and have posted a 4.43 ERA, eighth worst in baseball.
“We’re struggling. We’re inconsistent,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said. “We’ve struggled to find a rhythm with so many injuries, so many moving parts in the lineups. We’ve run into some tough pitching along the line. We certainly like the effort of the club. The talent level is there, but we have to play better baseball and be more consistent.”
It’s true that all eight everyday players have yet to play together this season. Werth, Rendon, Zimmerman and Span have missed a combined 230 games. But all have returned except Span, a key leadoff hitter working his way back from back spasms.
Yet, the day Rendon returned July 25, the Nationals had a three-game division lead; Werth and Zimmerman returned two days later. Since then, the Nationals are 6-14 and hitting .223. Rendon is hitting .208 with one home run and is struggling with his timing. Zimmerman has shown flashes since his return with four home runs, but he is hitting .254. Werth, who couldn’t practice his swing as much as his injured teammates while nursing a fractured left wrist for two months, is hitting .145 and missing pitches over the plate.
Couple that with the ups and downs of shortstop Ian Desmond (.272 and eight home runs since the all-star break but hitting .225 overall), catcher Wilson Ramos (.236) and rookie center fielder Michael A. Taylor (.241 and 118 strikeouts), and the Nationals’ offense is below average. Bryce Harper is still hitting well, but not at his breakneck first-half pace, and Yunel Escobar has hit a minor slump in the second half.
The team’s offensive struggles stem from several built-in issues. For one, the lineup is built around players who have been injury prone over their careers. And even though they knew it would take the injured veterans time to ease back into form after extended periods out of the lineup, the Nationals banked on immediate production from them when they returned.
They are “a free-swinging lineup that is vulnerable to extended slumps because they don’t find enough ways to score when they aren’t slugging,” said one National League scout, who spoke on the condition of anonymity so he could talk more freely about an opposing ballclub.
There is also a careful balancing act with the once-injured players the Nationals haven’t quite mastered yet. The Nationals need Werth, Rendon and Zimmerman to improve — and that should happen by playing.
“Those three guys are in spring training in the middle of a pennant race,” said an American League scout, who saw Rendon, Zimmerman and Werth play recently.
But the Nationals are in a pennant race and bench options such as Danny Espinosa and Clint Robinson have proved more productive in spurts this season. By playing less, they lose their timing at the plate.
The Nationals’ pitching has been as much a part of the second-half slide as the offense. Max Scherzer has a 5.05 ERA over eight starts since July 5, issues he has attributed to recently discovered mechanical flaws. Doug Fister has a 5.40 second-half ERA and was replaced in the rotation by rookie Joe Ross, who has a 4.59 ERA in the same span. Since the all-star break, the Nationals’ rotation is 7-14 with a 4.31 ERA, 16th in baseball.
The bullpen, too, has struggled. The unit has endured the most turnover this season thanks to injury and because the Nationals relied on young or ineffective relievers. The bullpen has a second-half ERA of 4.67. Drew Storen has allowed 10 runs over his past four outings, including blowing two games against the Rockies in Washington. Closer Jonathan Papelbon has made five appearances — only two in save situations — since he was acquired last month, a move that forced Storen into an eighth-inning role.
“Everybody is pressing,” pitching coach Steve McCatty said. “Everybody is trying hard.”
In trying to explain what he felt the Nationals needed to improve during what became a four-game sweep in San Francisco, Harper complimented the defending champion Giants but also admitted his own team has much room for growth.
“The Giants are a great team and sometimes you’ve just got to tip your cap,” he said after Friday’s loss. “They’re a team that doesn’t panic and they win ballgames. They’re not scared when they’re down and keeping on the pedal when they’re ahead. We can learn a lot from that crew over there, the way they play and the way go about it.”
Following Sunday’s demoralizing loss to San Francisco, Rizzo addressed the state of the team in the visitor’s clubhouse. He indirectly gave a vote of confidence to Williams, who has been scrutinized throughout the season for his pitching decisions. Earlier in the weekend, Rizzo explained his feelings on the manager.
“He’s done great,” Rizzo said before Saturday’s game. “I think he’s managed a team that has had more DL time from starting players of any team in the National League. I think he’s mixed and matched lineups extremely well because of the personnel that has been on the [DL].”
Then Rizzo made his point clear by adding this: “This is a player’s league, a players-driven league. And to a man, when you ask the players, these guys recognize that it’s their job to perform and at the end of the season we’re going to see where we’re going to be.”
Rizzo hired Williams before the 2014 season despite no major league managing experience. Williams’s well-prepared, by-the-book managing and even-keeled demeanor were key in the Nationals’ 2014 division-title-winning season. He won the NL manager of the year award.
But even during the regular season and playoffs last year, there were questions about the rookie manager’s pitching moves, the hardest skill to master as a manager. Some of those concerns have lingered this season and have even been met with puzzlement inside the clubhouse. Questioned about criticism over his decisions last week, Williams bristled.
“What I know is that we make moves depending on matchup and availability,” he said. “I’ll say it again: you guys don’t know who is available on a particular day. . . . We try to do the best job we can with regard with our pitching staff or with regard to the guys that are playing in the field and who is available to play that particular day. I believe it’s part of the job and I believe if that we go out and play well we’ve got a chance to win. That’s what I concentrate on.”
With all the changes, the dynamics of the clubhouse have been altered, too. Much of the team has been together for many years and remains close. But some awkwardness lingers about players’ roles and the unspoken messages sent by the moves.
Storen is no longer the closer, the second time in three years he has been moved out of the ninth inning by the front office. Fister, struggling but an accomplished veteran, was moved out the rotation. Bench players, such as Espinosa and Robinson, who helped the team build a 41/2-game division lead, are now sitting for longer periods.
Some players said they knew the Mets would be good but perhaps underestimated how good. The Mets have, by many measures, one of baseball’s elite starting rotations, the kind that prevents long losing streaks. Their offense is improved because of trade deadline additions but remains a weakness, along with the bullpen.
“Over the course of 162 [games, the Nationals’] core finds a way to be where they need to be at the end of the regular season,” said a National League scout that has watched the Nationals for years. “I expected this team to do something exciting over the final weeks.”
While both teams have easy schedules over the final seven weeks, the Mets have the edge. Over their final 44 games, they will play only five against teams with winning records: two games against Baltimore and three against the New York Yankees. The Nationals, on the other hand, will play 12 games — three against St. Louis and Baltimore and six against the Mets — over their final 45 against teams with winning records.
“We are in the hunt,” Williams said.
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