“Remember, this is a good team. You guys stay with us now, alright, stay with us.”
Kyle Schwarber asked, unprompted, for Washington Nationals fans not to lose faith in his team at the end of his media availability on Sunday after a win against the San Francisco Giants.
Following another series where the offense continued to lack any sort of consistency, the Nationals sat eight games under .500 at 27-35, 7.5 games out of first place in the National League East, and 9.5 games back of the second NL Wild Card spot.
That’s a big hole for a team that was aiming to compete this year to have dug themselves in mid-June. Even the 2019 Nationals were a game up on that at 28-34 through 62 games.
To get to 90 wins from there, the total that General Manager Mike Rizzo shoots for every year to get into the postseason, the Nationals would need to go 63-37 in their last 100 games. That .630 winning percentage required is a 102-win pace over a full season.
Despite the metaphoric mountain left to climb, that hasn’t affected Schwarber’s optimism.
“I just got a lot of faith in this team. I love this team,” Schwarber told reporters when asked about his quote from the previous day. “This is definitely one of the better times that I’ve had playing baseball in terms of just coming into a clubhouse and enjoying the people around you, and being able to go out there and got to battle with these guys.
“I wish that people on the outside could see what we get to do daily that this is a really good team, and trust me, you got one heck of a manager here, you got one heck of a staff and one heck of a players group, going out there and trying to bring something home for Washington Nationals fans.”
This is exactly the kind of quote that gets eaten up in April when playing well without results can be tolerated. Now though, fans rightly want to start to see results.
It doesn’t take much to figure out the main area that needs improvement: The offense.
In its simplest form, the Nationals currently have the second-lowest runs per game, scoring just 3.81 per contest, ahead of only the Pittsburgh Pirates. Whenever the opposition scores a few early runs, there’s already a sinking feeling in the stands that it’s insurmountable.
When the Nats allow three or more runs, the team is 9-30, good for a .231 winning percentage. Entering Tuesday, the rest of the league was 453-882 with a .339 winning percentage.
The Nationals’ offense hasn’t been able to pick up its pitching staff when there’s an early hiccup because they struggle in far too many scenarios that would allow them to go for the jugular in innings and put up crooked numbers.
Their struggles with the bases loaded have been well-documented. To this point, they slash .169/.231/.322 with ducks on the pond with a 53 wRC+, the second-worst figure in the league. With two outs and the bases loaded, it drops to a .065/.171/.194 slash line and 10 wRC+.
Even just with runners in scoring position and two outs, a key spot to maintain rallies and score multiple runs, the Nationals are slashing just .203/.339/.282 with a 77 wRC+ that is fifth-worst in the league.
That all leads to it feeling like the team never comes up big in the big spots that decide games.
According to FanGraphs, the Nationals are the worst team in the league in “High Leverage” spots, sporting an underwhelming .194/.304/.274 slash line and league-low 61 wRC+.
“We’re just not getting that one big hit in big moments like that,” manager Dave Martinez told reporters last week. “When it comes, I really feel like it’s going to come in bunches.”
“When you’re not scoring runs, and I try to tell these guys just drive in one. Try to drive in one and the next guy comes up and maybe he drives in one, two. In those situations it’s hard to strike out right there, we just got to move the baseball.”
That’s why the Nationals feel like they’re close. They get themselves into those big spots in games, it’s just that they aren’t executing well enough when those spots eventually come up.
“I always feel like we’re in games,” Schwarber explained. “I never feel like we’re out of reach, and that’s if we’re behind, and then the way that we battle and we put ourselves in positions to possibly tie the game, things like that, and then when we’re ahead, you look at our back end guys, and see that these guys are legit.”
They’ve at least started on their hopeful road back with two wins and have a chance for a sweep today against the Pirates who have the third-worst record in baseball at 23-43.
It’s one thing to beat one of the worst teams in the league, but if they really want bumpy roads to lead to beautiful places again this season, they need to start racking up wins and fast regardless of who they’re facing.
Ordinarily, splitting back-to-back series with American League-leading Tampa Bay Rays and the NL-leading Giants would be good results. But for a team that is already behind the eight-ball in the standings and had the chance to win both series, it’s frustrating to watch.
Then after this series with Pittsburgh wraps up, the Nats play 11-straight games against NL East opponents, including five against the division-leading New York Mets. This could be a season-defining stretch and presents a perfect chance for Washington to start proving on the field why the team’s fans should keep their faith in them this season.
If they don’t show signs of life, then it could soon have consequences at the trade deadline...