Aug 17

Just like 2013, Nats falling short, but they’re not out of it

Nationals fans across the internet seem to be in full panic mode after a four-game sweep at the hands of the San Francisco Giants. The team fell below .500 for the first time since May, and failed to gain ground on the NL East-leading New York Mets, who were swept at home by Pittsburgh.

Among fans who are already calling for manager Matt Williams to be fired, there’s a heated Twitter conversation curly wabout which ex-National, if any, should be named to replace him. A Facebook discussion group I belong to seems evenly split between folks who want to rebuild the team from the ground up and those who are still happy just to to have a team after the 34-year absence between 1971 and 2005, although the former group is much more vocal. One person compared the current Nats to the 1964 Phillies, who lost a 6 ½-game lead with less than two weeks to play.

Is this already a lost season, or is it too early to tell? For the answer to that, let’s go back to the Nats’ most recent lost season in 2013. There are quite a few parallels to the current campaign: Washington was a popular pick to win the World Series before the season even started. The starting lineup was hit with injuries to key players. Wilson Ramos, Jayson Werth and Bryce Harper all missed significant time. A much ballyhooed starting staff under performed.

The 2013 season was generally frustrating for the Nats and their fans. The team got off to a red-hot start, winning seven of its first 10 games before falling flat about the same time Harper injured his knee running into walls in Atlanta and Los Angeles. The Nats stayed around .500 before dropping below in mid June. Having fallen out of first place in the first week of the season, they continually lost ground on the division-leading Atlanta Braves, nine games behind with a six-game losing streak coming out of the All-Star break.

By Aug. 16, it seemed the bottom had dropped out. The Nats had lost two in a row, one to San Francisco on Hector Sanchez’ thee-run, pinch-hit homer off Rafael Soriano, and another on a 10th-inning homer by Atlanta’s Justin Upton. The Nats were three games under .500 at 59-62, 15 ½ games out of first place and four games out of the NL wild card race. It would get worse. The deficit grew to 16 games with an 11-1 loss to the Cubs on Aug. 19.

But then something interesting happened. It started with a five-game winning streak (on the road, no less) and eight wins in nine games, toward the end of August. Then three wins in five games, to start September, followed by a seven-game winning streak. By the end of a doubleheader sweep of the Braves on Sept. 17 the deficit was halved.

Throughout this time, the wild card deficit remained at four games. But the Nats were in the hunt there until the last week of the season and weren’t eliminated until a three-game sweep at the hands of the eventual pennant-winning St. Louis Cardinals on Sept. 23-25. The Nats’ run also coincided with Denard Span’s 29-game hitting streak, one short of Ryan Zimmerman’s team record 30.

The Nats finished the season on a 27-14 run and finished 86-76, just the second winning season since the team moved to Washington in 2005. Yes, the team failed to live up to the lofty preseason expectations. But they played meaningful games right down to the last week of the season and Span and his teammates didn’t give up, even if a lot of the fans did.

It’s not exactly breaking news that the 2015 Washington Nationals are not as good as many people expected before the season started. Injuries that have kept the team’s starting lineup from playing together for the entire season have taken care of that. But there’s still time for a team with a division-heavy schedule to overcome a 4 ½-game deficit against a Mets team that still struggles offensively.

Yes, there is cause for concern. But it’s way too early to call the season over.