MIAMI — It would be one thing if there was an obvious lack of effort, if players’ heads didn’t seem to be in the game. But that’s not the case right now for the Nationals. They’re simply not playing well. Which, in some ways, could cause frustration levels to rise even higher.
“The intent is there,” left fielder Jayson Werth said after Saturday’s 8-0 shellacking at the hands of the Marlins, the Nats’ fourth straight loss. “We come in here every day ready to go. It just needs to turn for us. We’re going through a bad stretch for us right now, that’s for sure. But it’ll turn. It always does.”
The track record does suggest things will get better for the Nationals. It did in 2013, though not until it was too late to reach the postseason. It did in 2014, with a sub-.500 club in late May still winding up winning 96 games.
But that doesn’t make this current stretch any easier to stomach, certainly not after a game like Saturday’s at Marlins Park, in which the Nationals were shut out for the first time this year while losing by more than three runs for only the second time.
“It’s not good,” catcher Wilson Ramos said. “I don’t feel too comfortable right now. We’ve got a better team. We need to play a better game. It’s real frustrating for the team, this game today.”
That frustration is only compounded when taking in consideration the overall picture of the NL East. The Nationals’ 7-11 start to the season is discouraging enough, but add the Mets’ 14-4 burst out of the gates and you’ve got a more significant dilemma on your hands.
The season is only three weeks old, yet the Nationals already are seven games back in the division. Yes, greater deficits have been made up in less time. But this isn’t a position this club is too familiar with.
Despite slow starts in some previous seasons, the Nationals haven’t stared up at a 7-game division deficit this early since April 2009, when they trailed the Phillies by a whopping 9 1/2 games after playing only 11. That club proceeded to lose 103 games. This club won’t do that, but there was an understanding in the visitors’ clubhouse at Marlins Park on Saturday evening that things are going to need to turn for the better sooner rather than later.
“We need to play a good game,” manager Matt Williams said. “We need to pitch well. We need to play good defense. We need to work all aspects of the game. Times like this, there’s not much to say except we need a win. We’ll try to do that tomorrow.”
The Nationals needed a win Saturday, on the heels of a 3-game losing streak and with Stephen Strasburg taking the mound against Tom Koehler. Instead, Strasburg vacillated between dominant and eminently hittable during his six innings of work.
The Marlins strung together four hits during a 2-run fourth, then another two hits and walk during a 2-run sixth. In between — and following an animated discussion in the dugout between Strasburg and pitching coach Steve McCatty — the right-hander struck out the side, adding to the all-or-nothing feel of his start.
“It’s very frustrating,” Strasburg said. “You want to go out there, especially after a loss last night, and shut ’em down. They went out there and put some good swings. They didn’t try to do too much. They came up big when they needed to.”
Regarding his in-game dugout conversation with McCatty, Strasburg said: “It’s nothing that he did. It was nothing I did. It was nothing anybody did. It was just maybe a little bit of frustration. I’m just gonna leave it at that.”
It wouldn’t have mattered how well Strasburg pitched Saturday, not with the Nationals’ lineup rendered helpless by Koehler, the 28-year-old right-hander with a career 4.22 ERA. The Nats have now scored three total runs in their last three games.
“It seems like we’re just not in sync offensively,” said Werth, hitting .189 with two RBI in his first 10 games of the season. “We’re not getting timely hits. We’re getting good at-bats and all that, but we need to sync up. Maybe not having our whole lineup together all year yet, we’re still going through it a little bit. Hopefully we’ll get [Anthony Rendon] back and it’ll make a difference. But even then, we’ve got to score more runs. We’ve got to manufacture some runs and help us out. We’re just not doing it right now.”
Put that all together and you’ve got a 7-11 team on a 4-game losing streak, facing a 7-game division deficit on April 25. As has been the case throughout these ragged three weeks, there’s no sense of panic in the Nationals’ clubhouse.
History says they’ll get on track at some point. Right now, all they can do is continue to believe that.
“First and foremost, it is early,” Strasburg said. “I think we just need to not worry about it and keep on moving in the right direction. I like the chemistry that we have in this clubhouse. We’ve just got to really stick together and keep pulling for each other. At the end of the day, whatever happens, happens. We’re gonna stick together through thick and thin.”