We're twenty-seven games in -- one sixth of a season -- and the Nationals have presented themselves in a way most fans would find surprising. The team has been aggressive, resilient, tenacious, and lucky. Those of us who have endured the Nationals in years past would not be able to recognize such traits. The Nationals, we came to believe, were tentative, quick to fold under pressure, willing to lose, and to a great extent just plain unlucky.
Not that the Nats are world-beaters at this point. They continue to have serious problems in the rotation, and they don't look to be getting any better in that regard for a while. With Lannan and Marquis hurt, the task of keeping the team in games has fallen on the shoulders of Craig Stammen, Livan Hernandez, Scott Olsen, and Luis Atilano. This is not a rotation that strikes fear into the hearts of opposing teams. Livan's luck notwithstanding, this set of pitchers is doomed to fall to the bottom of the league in pretty much every meaningful category. So the team is going to have to rely on its bullpen, its defense, and its hitting.
The bullpen has been good, so as long as Tyler Clippard or Matt Capps were on the mound. And they were, a lot. The alarms are already sounding about Peach's workload -- due in large part to Brian Bruney's lack of any control whatsoever. Someone out there has got to step up.
The Nationals feature several hitters that are prone to extended slumps, including the entire heart of the order: Ryan Zimmerman, Adam Dunn, and Josh Willingham. We have seen what happens when the team goes into group slumps, but we've also seen when the entire team is streaking. With the addition of Ian Desmond (who has nearly as many extra bases as he has hits), this team has power to spare, and can drop an 8-spot on pretty much any team in the league. Defensively, the Nats are a completely different team from last year -- with Willingham and Dunn playing surprisingly well (they were supposed to be the team's defensive Achilles' heel), and Desmond flashing some great leather at short, the philosophy of "pitch to contact" so eagerly espoused by McCatty has at least a chance to succeed.
So what happens now? The weather has turned nice, and the team is still in contention. Should they manage a 4-2 homestand, they could well leave town in first place. Wouldn't that be something? The team needs to get beyond what was undoubtedly a painful loss last night and take this series and somehow manage to do the same to the Fish. A long and oddly structured road trip follows (New York to Denver to St Louis?) but then, finally, they will have an extended run against last year's second division. And we all know what happens come June. How they fare in the interim will go a long way towards determining the team's strategy come late July.