Nationals fans go for a foul ball during happy fun times on the Fourth of July at Nationals Park. (Toni L. Sandys/THE WASHINGTON POST)

When I left town a few weeks ago, the Nats were hovering around the .500 mark, struggling to hit, pitch and field depending on the day or the week or the phase of the moon or whatever it is that ails this team. When I returned, the Nats were still hovering around the .500 mark, still struggling to hit, pitch and field. So I expected some long faces at Nationals Park on Thursday, even if it was the Fourth of July in our nation’s capital. And everywhere else, for that matter.

Instead, it was happy fun time at Nats Park, even before the Nats pulled out an 8-5 victory over the Brewers courtesy of a three-run homer by Wilson Ramos, who had just returned to the lineup after missing 44 games. Washington gave him a hearty welcome during team introductions, a curtain call after his seventh-inning dinger and a huge fireworks display on the Mall after the game.

(Really? Every year? I need to get out more.)

Before all the excitement, I ran into Mike Rizzo in the clubhouse. Big things were expected of his Nats this season — by him and everyone else — and so far the team has been lukewarm at best. Yet Rizzo was all grins, optimism and bonhomie, even while admitting he is at a loss to figure out the team’s problems. He really likes his roster, which he calls one of the most talented in baseball. Of course, he built it, so he’s not going to say it’s full of holes, but he rightly points out that a lot of so-called experts thought the same at the beginning of the season, when they picked the Nats to win everything from the World Series to an Emmy for best drama. They are still in the running for both.

If Rizzo was a happy man, the pregame Davey Johnson was positively giddy. First, he sported one of those braided necklaces that have become ubiquitous in baseball, the ones that allegedly give the wearer better balance or restore chi or something. “I should be wearing it around my head,” Johnson said.

Asked why he moved Ian Desmond into the second spot in the batting order, he said, “I don’t know. Because I’m supposed to do something.” He said he had an “epiphany” Wednesday night and called Desmond to tell him of the change and give him some advice: “Turn on the fan. Give it its head and let it buck.” He rather sheepishly explained that those phrases are baseball cant for telling a guy to swing. “I am going crazy,” he concluded.

Crazy? Desmond had three singles, stole two bases and scored two runs, and the Brewers intentionally walked him to get to Bryce Harper. “That came out all right,” he said afterward. “Every once in a while I have a good idea.” Magic necklaces for everyone!

You can’t blame Johnson for doubting his own sanity, however. Being around these Nats for 85 games would have that effect on anyone. Is their problem hitting, pitching or defense? Yes. In a team sport, it is almost always a mistake to confine the finger-pointing to one area of the roster or one set of statistics. The starting pitchers are slightly less to blame, collectively, but without a credible and consistent fifth arm there is no part of the roster that hasn’t contributed to its problems.

Speaking of consistent, the Nats aren’t. Rizzo would like a nice 10-game winning streak, but their longest this season has been five. They’ve done that once. Their longest losing streak is four. They’ve done that twice. Not all the wheels come off the bus every night, but all it takes is one. (On Thursday, the Nats collected 11 hits and committed no errors, but Drew Storen gave up three runs in the seventh. It’s always something.)

More than halfway through the season, approaching the all-star break, with the trade deadline less than four weeks away, the Nats have yet to find any kind of rhythm.

“Rhythm. That’s a good word,” said Rizzo, who while cheerful can’t deny that his players don’t seem to be working off the same sheet of music.

It may be time to accept some harsh truths, and one of them is that the Nats of 2013 aren’t the Nats of 2012. Theories from injuries to the loss of Michael Morse have been posited, but diagnosing the problem won’t solve it. If the 2013 Nats are to make the playoffs — something that is still eminently achievable — they will have to do what they did Thursday: Find a way to win despite an epic fail from one of their problem areas. They will have to scratch out runs, shore up the sometimes leaky pen and eliminate the plethora of errors.

And optimistic or not, they’ll have to do it soon. It’s still a little too early to write off this season. But it’s not a lot too early.

For previous columns by Tracee Hamilton, visit

More on the Nationals:

Ramos rescues the Nationals

Nationals Journal: Storen stumbles again

Nationals Journal: Jordan happy with second start

Bog: Davey Johnson’s bobblehead

Nationals Journal: Espinosa still struggling