With the Washington Nationals coming off an impressive sweep of the Miami Marlins that aligned with the return of two of their biggest stars, Jayson Werth and Trea Turner, I made a prediction to a few people:
The Nats were about to go on a run — scratch that, an all out sprint — to knock the remaining games off their magic number, win a considerable amount of games in a row, and maybe even challenge the Los Angeles Dodgers (albeit, most likely unsuccessfully) for the number one seed in the National League.
So much for that.
To be fair: The Nationals were coming off of what was their most impressive series of the season, holding the Marlins, then one of baseball’s hottest teams, to just five runs and 22 hits over the course of a three-game sweep.
Moreover, the offense had exploded with Turner and Werth’s return, scoring 23 runs in those three games — in short, everything was coming up Washington.
But that’s a lulling sense of calm. One that the Nationals are very familiar with — the sensation of scoring easily for months at a time, never worrying about pitching — you know the drill.
Then — as many playoff iterations of this ballclub know so well — it all comes crashing down. The offense forgets how to hit, the pitchers who were so reliable all season long are a little less reliable, if not completely unreliable.
That all happened at once this weekend in Milwaukee, where the Nats lost three of four to a Brewers team that looked like it belonged in the playoffs, and made the Nationals look like they belonged picking very early in next year’s draft.
It was, in short, a nightmare scenario.
The Nationals have too much talent to play as poorly as they did in Milwaukee — a streak like that with them can only last for no longer than five or six games.
Something, somewhere, eventually breaks the dam (or re-seals it).
The one problem: Four, five, six games like that are enough to end your season in October.
It started with starting pitching that was mainly inconsistent, with Gio Gonzalez having a night like his advanced stats suggested he was bound to have one of these days, Max Scherzer suffering a freak injury, and Edwin Jackson pitching like his peripherals show he should every game.
Of course, the Nats might’ve been able to salvage a split if its offense wasn’t borderline anemic, with every single player down the line, including the typically reliable Anthony Rendon and Daniel Murphy, who went a combined 3-24 against the Brewers, unable to get the job done.
The bullpen, ironically, managed to hold it together (although Sean Doolittle gave the DMV a collective heart attack in the one game the Nats were able to win).
A four-game set like the Nationals just lost to the Brewers, only salvaging one game, exemplified what that nightmare scenario looks like for this iteration of the Nats.
In fact, it exemplified what the nightmare scenario looked like for every iteration of the Nationals.
That kind of play was showcased on national TV three times in three different Octobers, most prolifically in 2014 when a team that came into October coasting as much as one team can played about as well as the Syracuse Chiefs against the San Francisco Giants in the NLDS, losing the series 3-1.
The offensive stalwarts of the season simply couldn’t hit, and the pitching was just bad enough to let the Giants in the door. To varying degrees, that was the story of the other two times the Nationals played October baseball.
To be clear, there is no chance the Nationals don’t win the NL East.
Even if they played like they did against the Brewers for the rest of the season, Washington would inevitably manage to win six games, and the Marlins, even if they suddenly became a powerhouse, would inevitably manage to lose six games. This early in the month, a magic number of 12 may as well be a magic number of zero, because at some point in the next 30 days or so, both teams are destined to revert to their mean.
Washington’s presence in the postseason isn’t in question, and soon, their home-field advantage in the NLDS won’t be either — blowing a seven-game lead over the Cubs would require a meltdown of incredible, epic proportions.
What is in question is if these Nationals, despite their incredible run in which the team, even while duct-taped and half-dead, managed to win and win and win, will collapse like this come October.
A performance like this is a good reminder that even if the team does pick up the pace, which they likely will, there are absolutely no guarantees as to if it’ll carry over into October.
Another point of concern is Daniel Murphy, who’s been in a prolonged slump since mid-August — since the 15th, Murphy has hit .228 with just three extra base hits, an unexpected turn for a player that the Nationals normally consider to be the model of consistency.
Additionally, Ryan Zimmerman continues to scuffle after his scorching spring, hitting just .234 in the months of July and August.
If one was to combine that with an offense that suddenly is struggling on all fronts, you have a recipe for disaster.
There are a few saving graces here, the most prominent being that Trea Turner and Jayson Werth will only improve as time goes on.
Turner has only posted one multi-hit game since returning from the disabled list on August 29th; Jayson Werth has only three hits since returning on August 28th, none of them coming in the Nats’ set with Milwaukee.
Turner and Werth’s timing and hitting will only get better as they re-adjust to major-league pitching, which will come with more games played.
Additionally, the offense may get a more metaphorical spark in the potential return of Bryce Harper, who will, at the very least, force pitchers to throw strikes to the leadoff and number two hitters, assuming Harper is slotted in back third in the lineup.
However, at least on the offensive front, this is all speculative and panicking, diving down the wormhole where the offense continues to be incapable of hitting, and searching, begging for answers.
The Nationals’ offense is chock-full of great hitters — it survived without Turner, Werth, and Harper for a good while and can survive now.
As for the pitching, the team can only hope that Gonzalez continues to outpitch his advanced numbers, and that Jackson can continue to fool batters — but if it doesn’t happen, neither is the end of the world.
In fact, the Nationals have a nice safety blanket with Tanner Roark rounding into form and (again, the team can only hope here) Stephen Strasburg and Max Scherzer appearing to be healthy coming down the stretch.
Overall, there’s no reason to worry now. What’s more, the team will get another chance against another playoff team — in fact, they’ll get to test themselves against the best team in baseball, the Los Angeles Dodgers, when they come to town later this month.
If the team still looks anemic, slow, unfocused, unmotivated, tired, all of the above, in a series where all of baseball will be watching... well, worrying may be okay at that point.
Until then, things are fine. They aren’t great, because we got to see what this team looks like when it’s scuffling mightily, a stretch like that being perfectly acceptable, but not ideal.
However, things aren’t terrible either — in fact, the Nationals may be better off after this four-game skid, now knowing that they can’t rest on their laurels, that they’re capable of playing poorly — so that they now have something to be scared of for October, a reason to play like there’s no tomorrow so they can avoid it at all costs.