They were wholeheartedly anointed the team to beat in what looked like a weak NL East, and for most of the summer to date, the Nationals were living up to the billing. Baseball Prospectus publishes daily playoff odds, and pretty much for the last six weeks the Nats were given anywhere from a 75 percent to an 89 percent chance of making the postseason.
As recently as Thursday, that number was 81.2 percent, with a 76.8 percent chance of winning the division. And then the Nationals were swept by the Mets over the weekend, and then they lost 6-4 to the Diamondbacks on Monday night while New York was busy steamrolling the Marlins 12-1.
And so now, the Nationals don’t even need bother look at projected standings to understand the situation they’re in. They need only look at the actual standings, which show the Mets sitting all alone atop the NL East for the first time since June 19. Not to mention the NL wild card standings, which show three teams ahead of the Nats and only two slots available for the one-game October play-in.
If you’re stunned by this sudden development, you’re not alone. The Nationals certainly didn’t see this coming, though they still choose to take the long-term view of the situation.
“That’s not good, but it’s not the end of the season,” right-hander Doug Fister said. “We still have quite a bit of time left. And we need to go out here every day and make sure we get our business done.”
The Nats haven’t been getting their business done in recent days. They’ve dropped four straight, 11-of-17 since the All-Star break.
And the primary reason for that is obvious: A lack of offense.
During this 17-game skid to open the season’s second half, the Nationals are hitting a collective .214 with a .278 on-base percentage and scoring an average of 3.3 runs per game. And it’s getting worse: Over their last five games, they’ve scored only 10 total runs … with four of those coming during a last-ditch, bottom-of-the-ninth rally Monday night.
It was one thing when this happened against the never-ending string of aces that lined up to face the Nationals over the last two weeks, pitchers with names like Kershaw and Greinke and Cole and Fernandez and Harvey and deGrom and Syndergaard. But then came Monday’s game against Zack Godley, the Diamondbacks’ previously unknown rookie right-hander making his third career start after posting a 5.14 ERA at Class AA, who proceeded to shut out this star-laden lineup over six innings.
“What a plan we had up there today,” Bryce Harper said with a hint of sarcasm. “I don’t think we had one. Being able to go up there against a guy we’ve never faced, we were really just trying to have good at-bats. I don’t think we executed enough on that tonight. It just happens that way sometimes.”
Manager Matt Williams noted his hitters “swung at balls out of the strike zone” early on, failing to take advantage of what few opportunities they had.
When they were missing four key lineup regulars, it was easy to blame the Nationals’ offensive woes to injury. But everyone aside from Denard Span has now been back at least a week, and the results are no better, even worse in some ways.
There is, of course, a difference between a healthy lineup and a lineup full of hitters in midseason form.
“I think everybody knows it’s going to take about 100 at-bats for guys to really get going,” Harper said. “It’s something that I went through two years in a row [after returning from lengthy DL stints]. I know how it is. We want those guys in the lineup, but we know it’s going to take a little bit of time. It’s something that just goes that way. You need about 100 at-bats to really get going. We’ll see about it in a couple of weeks.”
Problem is, the Nationals can’t necessarily afford to wait another couple of weeks to start clicking. Games are taking on more and more significance with each passing day.
“If you’re here and ready to play, there’s really no excuse,” said Ryan Zimmerman, 6-for-26 with two homers since returning from his 7-week stint on the DL. “Bottom line, it just comes down to we have to score more runs. To get to where we want to get, we’re going to have to score runs against good pitchers and help our guys out.”
Until that happens, the Nationals will find themselves in this precarious position, actually looking up at another club in the standings for the first time in a long time, hoping that won’t remain the case for long.
“We’ve just really gotta try to stay within our team,” Harper said. “I don’t really give a crap about what the Mets are doing, or the Dodgers, the Giants or Texas or anybody. I could really care less. I know what type of team we are, our capability of going into every single game and having the confidence to win ballgames. Playing guys like [Arizona] that has a losing record, we’ve got to win these ballgames. We’ve got to scratch and fight and claw just try to win these games. Hopefully we can do that the rest of the time we’re here.”