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Nats not ready to panic, despite continued struggles

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Nats not ready to panic, despite continued struggles

The Nationals returned home last Monday with an opportunity ahead of them. They had just been swept by the New York Mets to close a road trip where they lost seven of 10 games. But awaiting them was a seven-game stretch against sub-.500 teams within the friendly confines of Nationals Park.

On the other end of that week was one of the most difficult parts of their 2015 schedule: three games at the Los Angeles Dodgers with both Zack Greinke and Clayton Kershaw lined up to start, then four at the San Francisco Giants with Madison Bumgarner set for the finale.

With some of the best teams in baseball up ahead, losing to the Arizona Diamondbacks and Colorado Rockies is not ideal, but that's exactly what transpired for the Nationals in what amounted to a 3-4 homestand overall. Losing to teams that will not be in the playoffs is one thing, but to have two winnable games blown by their setup man Drew Storen is a tough pill to swallow.

The Nationals did not lose any ground in the division after Sunday's 6-4 loss to the Rockies, as the Mets also fell in their series finale in Tampa. But each time this team begins to show progress, they seem to let favorable matchups and situations elude them.

The Nats' clubhouse leaders and manager Matt Williams all stuck to the message they have echoed for much of this season: it's too early to panic and they will take this day-by-day until it's really too late to turn things around.

That's the mantra Williams has preached since he took the job before last season and he's not going to change his philosophy now.

"We don't think about that. It's about tomorrow," he explained on Sunday. "We have to play the Dodgers tomorrow. We're in a spot where we're in this thing and we have to be prepared for that. To look back on things does you no good. We look forward to tomorrow."

That is consistent with what Williams has said all year and for as long as the Nats' core of reporters has known him. He described it even further when pressed on how exactly his team can improve if he refuses to look back and evaluate in the big picture:

"That's what you would think. But what I would think as the manager of this club is that we must play tomorrow. And if we don't win tomorrow, or have the plan to win tomorrow, then what the hell are we doing here? That's what I think. So, for me, it is in the past. There's nothing we can do about it right now. Of course we want to get better, of course we want to win games. What we do right now is jump on that plane with a good attitude and go get the Dodgers and see what we can do. What other choice could we have? Pretty much none. So, we'll go do that."

The Nationals are still quite clearly in the division race, despite their standing in the context of the rest of the league. Overall, they have been a relatively mediocre team to this point. As of now they stand on pace to win about 84 games, or 83.9 to be exact. Usually that would put you in serious trouble at this point of the year, yet they remain just 1 1/2 games out of first place.

That fact, though bizarre and unusual as it may be, is not lost on the Nationals.

"You just gotta stay within striking distance and get where we need to be with two or three weeks left in the season and then go from there," Ryan Zimmerman said. "We’re 1 ½ games out. It doesn’t matter if we turn it around or not. We could finish one game over .500, as long as we win the division it doesn’t matter.

"You can’t look at baseball on a day-to-day basis. That’s why it’s so hard for you guys. You guys have to write things that really don’t matter because you can’t talk about stuff every day in baseball. I’m glad I don’t have your job. It’s more of a large sample size sport. Look at the Mets earlier in the year, they won [11] in a row and then everyone said that they’re this great team and then they lost eight in a row and now they’re winning seven in a row."

"I'm pretty optimistic," Jayson Werth said. "We need to win more games [and] play up to our capabilities....I think we're in good shape. We'll be good. We just need to get rolling.

"We got a great team, we got a great group of guys. I love coming to the park and playing with these guys. I can't say enough about them. We just got to pick each other up and just keep going. We got a long way to go. Again, I feel good. I feel good where we're at. I love my team. I feel like it's just a matter of time before we start clicking and we start gelling and we start rolling."

Optimism is one thing, but the Nationals will have to play a different brand of baseball to take care of business out west. The Nats are now 9-14 in the second half of the season and 10 of their last 13 have come against losing teams.

If they continue to make mistakes, give up late leads and fail to take advantage of prime opportunities, the Dodgers and Giants will make them pay. Max Scherzer - who gave up three homers on Sunday but did not take the loss - perhaps summed up best what the Nationals will need to do to get back on track:

"Look, it is what it is. You have to win all these games. You have to find a way to dig deep and win these series. I know we're playing some great teams. We're going to face the Dodgers, Giants and [the Rockies] again. It's going to be an absolute grind. That's what August is about. You have to grind through the schedule and keep going at it. With 162, when you get in August, you have to find a way just to dig deep and grind out these games. It's one pitch, one inning at a time. Sometimes you just gotta remind yourself that's what it takes to win at this time of the year."

As Scherzer explained, the Nationals know what they need to do to win, but one has to wonder how long they can go at this pace before the time to panic actually arrives.

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Ryan Zimmerman is ready to rejoin Nationals, but in what capacity?

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Ryan Zimmerman is ready to rejoin Nationals, but in what capacity?

Key for Ryan Zimmerman was the simplistic act of staying on his grumpy feet for nine innings. The idea had been elusive for weeks. Zimmerman last played a full baseball game on April 27. Plantar fasciitis sent him to this fate, and each time he progressed, an ache pulled him back.

Monday, Zimmerman played nine innings for Double-A Harrisburg. He picked up two hits, but more vital was the ability to play a full game his third time on the field in four days. Zimmerman played Friday and Saturday before taking Sunday off. Tuesday becomes decision day: is Zimmerman ready to join the team Wednesday or does he have to wait? He'll wait at least another day since he is in the Senators' lineup as the designated hitter Tuesday.

There's a benefit to waiting. Washington goes to Detroit for interleague play this weekend. That affords them a chance to use the designated hitter and a window to play both Howie Kendrick and Zimmerman throughout the series without greatly taxing either.

Bringing Zimmerman back sooner also has the benefit of putting his glove on the field and expanding bench options for manager Davey Martinez. The veteran can be protected in a rotation at first base. The Nationals have Brian Dozier hitting and fielding well. Kendrick hits line drives whenever he is in the lineup. Matt Adams provides a powerful matchup option. This is how things were supposed to work from the start of the season. But, they did not come to order until late June.

Zimmerman's injury has also decided the fate of his $18 million club option for next season. It has graduated from unlikely to no chance. Though, he appears open to coming back at a much lower price. Zimmerman's body has forced him into a position of being a part-time player only, at this stage. He said last week his body "felt great" outside of the plantar fasciitis issue in his foot. Don't be surprised if he and the Nationals work something out for one more season.

For now, the club has to decide when Zimmerman will be back on the field. If he felt good Tuesday following another rehabilitation game, he could be ready as soon as Wednesday. Which prompts another decision: Do they release spirit animal Gerardo Parra to make space? Would they entertain a change for Michael A. Taylor? Something has to give if Zimmerman is finally ready.

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Nationals calling up reliever Jonny Venters

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Nationals calling up reliever Jonny Venters

The Nationals are calling up veteran left-handed reliever Jonny Venters to join the team Tuesday, according to a source.

Venters, 34, has undergone three Tommy John surgeries in between his five seasons in the major leagues. Venters entered the league in 2010 and was dominant before his first ulnar collateral ligament tear. Washington signed him May 29, then sent him to Double-A Harrisburg. Venters put together a 1.29 ERA in seven innings with the Senators.

Also joining the bullpen Tuesday is veteran Fernando Rodney. Calling up both will force the Nationals to make a 25-man roster move. Washington is likely to send down Kyle McGowin. It also needs to open a 40-man roster spot. Transferring reliever Austen Williams to the 60-day disabled list would accomplish that.

Washington's maligned bullpen comes into play Tuesday with the major league's second-worst ERA after spending the majority of the season as the league's worst  bullpen.

Venters' promotion was first reported by 106.7 The Fan.

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