Things couldn't have gone much worse for the Washington Nationals this weekend in New York. They headed to Citi Field with a three game lead over the New York Mets. Their offense scratched out just five runs in three games. Their two relief aces never got into any of the three games, though there were certainly spots where it made sense to use them on Friday and Saturday. Sunday's 5-2 loss completed a three game sweep at the hands of the Mets as the Nats fell into a first place tie.
The immediate instinct among many Nats fans may be to panic. Heck... After Sunday's column, many of you probably think that I am panicking. The division lead is gone. The Mets starting pitching is ridiculously strong. The way that their team fed off of the outstanding energy from the crowd in Citi Field this weekend made them almost feel like a team of destiny. With the three game sweep, the Mets went from being a team that has been knocking at the door for the past month to a team that finally just banged straight through it... They haven't, though. Not yet, at least.
The two teams are tied with a couple of months to play in the season. The Nats have 59 games remaining and are still one up in the loss column. The Mets have 57 games remaining as well. Looking at these two teams on paper, the Nationals still appear to be the better team. Their run differential is thirty runs better than the Mets, who have actually been outscored by two runs so far this season. Their fWAR total so far this season is still 0.8 higher than the Mets fWAR this season, despite both teams losing quite a few games from some of their best players. Fangraphs still projects the Nats at 68.6% to win the division; Baseball Prospectus has them at 56.1%.
Of course, the concept that leads some of us to feel as if the Nats are suddenly five games back rather than tied for the division lead is momentum. After the weekend series, the Mets seem like a locomotive that's picking up steam. The Nats seem like a snowball that started gradually rolling downhill on Friday night with no end in sight. That's simply not the case.
Let's quote the great Earl Weaver:
Momentum is only as good as the next day's starting pitcher.
We've seen time and time again how this statement can be true. For crying out loud, we actually saw it happen this week to the team that the Nats are battling with. They took a huge lead on the Padres in Thursday's game, leading 7-1 at one point. Hansel Robles allowed a grand slam to Derek Norris to trim their lead to two. In a crazy game with two extended rain delays in the ninth inning, the Padres ended up winning the ballgame 8-7 on a three run homer by Justin Upton with two outs in the ninth inning. In the meantime, the Nats took their final two games in Miami, highlighted by a 1-0 win Thursday which showed just how dominant the back of the Nats revamped bullpen can be.
Those games didn't mean a whole lot when the two teams met on Friday. The Mets soul crushing loss on Thursday didn't keep Matt Harvey from throwing a dominant outing in Friday's game... or Jacob deGrom from limiting the Nats to two runs despite not having his best control on Saturday... or Noah Syndergaard from striking out nine batters on his way to completing the sweep.
Even the Mets bullpen, which got pummeled in Thursday's game, dominated the Nats all weekend long. Robles, who allowed the grand slam to Norris, struck out four of the six Nats he faced in two perfect innings. Jeurys Familia, who had blown three straight saves after allowing Upton's homer, faced eight Nats over two games this weekend. Not one reached base.
We've even seen that momentum doesn't mean all that much with this Nats team in the past. Remember when the Nats blew a 9-0 lead against the chasing Braves in July of 2012? They followed that with a 4-0 loss in Game 1 of the doubleheader the next afternoon, but then reeled off five wins in a row. Even this season's six game losing streak in April dropped the Nats eight games back of the Mets, but the Nats were back in first place three weeks later. Momentum may be a factor, but don't overrate it.
The baseball season is a marathon. It's a six month battle of attrition with a seemingly endless series of highs and lows. The Nats are certainly hitting one of those lows after this weekend's series, but all that they have to do at this point is be one game better than the New York Mets from today through the end of the season. That's achievable.
In order for the Nats to perform better the rest of the way and win the division, we would expect that some of the Nationals offensive talents not named Bryce Harper are going to have to hit more like they have throughout their career. We've said for a while now that Jayson Werth, Ryan Zimmerman, Anthony Rendon, and (eventually) Denard Span may require a bit of an adjustment period as they work themselves back into the lineup. I'm certainly not saying that the grace period that they require as they find their timing is over, but the Nats have less wiggle room to wait for them to come around than they did prior to this weekend. The Nats have faced some incredibly tough pitchers over the past two weeks, and faced a gauntlet in New York this past weekend. Still, if you score just five runs in three games (six in four, going back to Thursday's win), you're not going to win a lot of ballgames.
I went off on Matt Williams management of the bullpen (again) on Sunday. I've criticized moves he's made that have blown up this season. I've criticized moves that he's made when they've worked. I've even criticized moves of his that probably haven't had any effect on the game whatsoever. Having watched Williams manage the Nats for the past two years, I've always questioned his attention to detail and the process that he uses to make some of his decisions. That's not going to change. There's room for improvement all around the field, starting at the top with the manager.
Unfortunately, when one area of your team (the offense) isn't producing very well, there's less margin for error from other areas (the pitching, the defense, and yes... the manager). I'd love to see this team start firing on all cylinders. There's still time. They can start playing better tonight against Arizona... momentum be damned.