April 23, 2014

Washington Nationals still confident in post-season aspirations

There is an old saying baseball that goes something like this: you are going to win 60, you are going to lose 60, and it’s what you do with the rest of the games that count.

Entering a four-game series with the Philadelphia Phillies this week, the Nationals had won six of their previous eight games, including four straight and a sweep of the San Diego Padres over the weekend at Nationals Park. But the trip to Philly, and three straight starts against left-handed pitching, didn’t go quite the way the Nats hoped as the team dropped three out of the four games in the series to start a seven-game road trip that concludes with a three-game series in Miami against the Marlins and the All-Star break.

As we all know, the baseball season is full of ups and downs, winning streaks and losing streaks, but the defending National League East Champions are at a crossroads a few games into the second half the season.

The Nats are currently ranked 13th in the National League offensively.  They are next-to-last in the league in fielding, with only the Los Angeles Dodgers behind them.  They are, however, fifth in pitching and in the end, that will be their saving grace if they are to make a playoff run.

This is a team that was picked by many of the prognosticators to repeat as N.L. East champs, but they find themselves six games behind the Braves – and just 1 1/2 games ahead of Philly in third place — as the final weekend of play before the All-Star break is upon us, with over 90 games already in the books.

To make matters worse, the Nats trail both Pittsburgh and Cincinnati for a Wild Card spot in the playoffs.

Yet, there is no panic within the clubhouse and much of that has to do with skipper Davey Johnson.

In some ways, Johnson has to feel like this is 1996 all over again.  That year, his Orioles were at 50-51 on July 26 and yet the Birds found a way to get hot, win 88 games, and win the Wild Card in the American League, eventually losing to the Yankees in the ALCS in five games.

Johnson has always liked this team despite its inconsistency in the first half and he is well aware through a long baseball season anything can happen.

“The makeup and the effort have been there but we just haven’t done the things we are capable of,” Johnson said. “The pressure of being one of the best teams in baseball, picked to go the farthest, we didn’t handle it that well.  The young guys who were really strong last year were affected the most.  My bench last year was terrific and this year it hasn’t been as good. All those things add up.”

The key for Johnson and the Nationals is to ride out the storm and try to stay within striking distance of the Braves and take a run at them in August and September.

Fans are becoming worried and with good reason.  They look at the standings and see their team’s position and wonder what how does this team right the ship.

“It’s a long season and momentum shifts can take place at any time,” Johnson said.  “Last year our momentum started to shift after we got a little healthier in Colorado.  Our offense was down but our pitching was really holding us in. The run differential was a little better but not much, it was on the positive side.  We’ve had injuries to the pitching staff, all those things, you just have to ride it out and not lose faith and I think that’s where we’re at.”

It’s nothing that a nice seven or eight game winning streak wouldn’t cure, right?

Two years ago, the Red Sox had a nine-game Wild Card lead over the Tampa Bay Rays on Sept. 3 and wound up losing the Wild Card on the final day of the regular season.  Also that year, the Braves lost a 12-game Wild Card lead to the Cardinals with six weeks to play.

Stranger things have happened so the Nationals try to keep their current dilemma in perspective.

“If we can creep up a little bit, I mean, Atlanta is a good team and there are a lot of good teams in this division that we have to play,” said third baseman Ryan Zimmerman. “It’s not going to happen just like that. We have to continue to play the kind of baseball we have been playing for the last week-and-a-half, two weeks, for the rest of the season if we are going to accomplish what we want to accomplish.”

Johnson said, “All we have to do is play well and play up to our potential and do what we did to win the division last year.  We have played below our potential but we are coming around so, it’s a good feeling.”

Johnson and the Nationals would like to feel a lot better.

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