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  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.