The Washington Nationals did what you are supposed to do against the best teams in baseball … this past week. They faced the best team in baseball, the San Francisco Giants, and the best team in the American League, the Tampa Bay Rays, for a combined six games this past week and went 3-3 against them. They say if you can play .500 or better against the best teams in baseball and dominate the bad teams you will make the playoffs. The issue is that the Nats entered that Tampa series with a 24-32 record.
Now if the Nats can crush the Pirates, Mets, and Phillies coming up on one of those great runs, the team could be right back in it. But we know there will be skepticism. We said it before about 2019, baseball miracles can happen, and maybe it can happen again. Yes the Nats have to play better against the top of the NL East. All you have to do is look at the Nats record in the NL East against the Braves (3-7), Phillies (2-4), and Mets (1-2), and that combined 6-13 record for the reason the Nats are below .500.
One player who is staying optimistic is Kyle Schwarber who had some encouragement for Nats fans who he doesn’t think should give up. Schwarber hit two home runs yesterday to help beat the Giants and now has a dozen for the season. This would be a good time for Schwarbs to help spark this team.
“Stay with us, stay with us. … I mean, I got a lot of belief in this team,” Schwarber said. “There’s been a lot of adversity thrown at the team. To start the year, guys were on the COVID list. There have been some injuries here, left and right. … I always feel like we’re in games. I never feel like we’re out of reach.”
But back to reality, if you just look at all of the blown bases loaded opportunities for analysis, you can see it really is those “little things” that manager Dave Martinez stresses, that are the difference between winning and losing. The Nats are dead last by a sizable margin, but it has to be more than that because the Mets are almost as putrid, yet they are in first place.
So if it isn’t all bases loaded opportunities blown, what is it? The answer is that it is the combination of many little things. The Nats came into the Tampa series with a 24-32 record after suffering two losses to the Phillies. Fielding errors and the fact that two pitchers could not recover from those errors resulting in 9 unearned runs is mind-blowing in those two losses against Philly. In one game, Josh Bell booted a grounder that led to 4 unearned runs, and the next day Jordy Mercer went back on a ball and dropped a popup that led to 5 unearned runs. Maybe the story was more about how the pitchers just melted down after those unforced errors. On Saturday night, Victor Robles made a baserunning error which some call a TOOTBLAN. Errors and mistakes happen. But when you are scoring 3.76 runs per game, your margin for error is smaller.
Maybe we have to go to a larger scale stat which is how the Nats are in RISP spots, and you will find it is also heinous. The Nats have only scored 155 runs in RISP situations with a .233 batting average, and that is the third worst in those spots in all of baseball.
On the good side, the Nats have been near the top of the league in team batting average and Top-5 in OPS. Their issues come when they need runs driven in, and the team must improve in those spots.
But it is not all about the batting woes. There is a fair amount of blame on those early season issues with the starting pitchers and the bullpen meltdowns. The Nats now have Austin Voth, Daniel Hudson and Stephen Strasburg on the IL, and Max Scherzer is in injury limbo with an inflamed groin which he is testing out day by day with today set as the decision day to either keep going with his status unknown or add him to the 10-day IL.
Overall, the Nats pitching staff is the 13th best in ERA at 3.92 and month by month you will see the improvement: 5th best in June at 2.97, 16th best in May at 4.09, and 21st best in April at 4.40. But the strange part about this is that the Nats were in 1st place in the NL East from May 1st to May 3rd then the Nats went 1-7 to fall quickly back to last place on May 12th. The Nats finished the month of May on a 5-game losing streak.
“We’ve got about five or six weeks to see what we’ve got before the trade deadline, and then we’ll make decisions as we see fit,” general manager Mike Rizzo said on 106.7 The Fan radio last week.
Rizzo has been saying publicly that the team is not considering trades at this time. But what else would you expect him to say publicly? This team has 27-games until the All-Star break in mid-July and really has to go 18-9 to get back into this race or at least go 16-11 to be in a position to make up ground after the All-Star break. Good luck with that given the schedule after this 3-game series versus Pittsburgh is against the Mets, Phillies, Marlins, Rays, Dodgers, Padres, and Giants. Then the post-All-Star break begins with a home series against the Padres. The schedule is brutal. But there’s the test. Can it be done? Of course. We remember 2019 when they all wanted to stick a fork in the Nats.
The Nats are still at that edge. They are on that line of demarcation at 7.5 games from first place, because nobody has run away with the division. But they would have to leapfrog four teams to get back to the top of the division. Clearly they have to take care of business against their NL East opponents.
“Fortunately, the division has given us a chance. They’re keeping us in this thing until we get right, and we’ve been through this thing before,” Rizzo said. “Once we can get things rolling, we take off.”
With a series the Nats need to dominate against the last place Pirates coming up and a 4-game series against the 1st place Mets, it is time to get on a winning streak and flip the script. It would take a baseball miracle for the Nats to get above .500 by the All-Star break, and the good news is that the 2019 team managed by Martinez did it before. So yes, it is possible.