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It's Gut-Check Time for the 2013 Washington Nationals

Ryan GoldContributor IIJuly 31, 2013

It's Gut-Check Time for the 2013 Washington Nationals

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    Entering the 2013 season, the Washington Nationals were a popular selection to compete for the World Series.  Now a team with so much promise—following their first playoff appearance in 31 years and the first playoff experience in Washington since 1933—is struggling in all phases of the game as the regular season winds down.

    After several months of mediocrity due to injuries, inconsistent pitching, hitting slumps and poor fielding, the Nationals find themselves in a place few expected: on the outside looking in for a playoff spot.

    Last season at this time, the Nationals were 64-43.  With a 52-55 record, they are now 10 games behind the Atlanta Braves, so their chances of repeating as NL East Champs are all but over. Crazier things have happened though: the 1995 Seattle Mariners were 13 games back of the Angels on August 3 and managed to win the AL West.

    The second wild card spot is doubtful but a more realistic goal, since Washington is only 6.5 games behind Cincinnati. With 107 games completed on the schedule, even the most devout Nationals supporters can feel the desperation surrounding this ballclub.  

    Reality has truly set in for a young team that was hoping (expecting?) to use last year’s breakout performance as a springboard for better things to come. Do the Nationals have enough time—or perhaps more importantly, are they capable of competing for the playoffs this season? Anything is possible in the world of sports, so there is still time and they do have a chance to make a late-season push, as unlikely as that is.

    Before we get into how they might turn things around, let’s try and find out why they haven’t been meeting expectations.

The Starting Pitchers Have Not Been as Strong as Last Year

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    The starting rotation of Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann might be the best in baseball when they’re throwing their best stuff. The three All-Stars have had dominating performances this year, but Dan Haren, although much better recently, and the currently injured Ross Detwiler have been disappointments.

    While some could complain that replacing Edwin Jackson with Dan Haren was an unnecessary transaction, Jackson only has one more win on the season, and just as many losses.

    Nathan Karns, Ross “Best Windup in Baseball” Ohlendorf and Taylor Jordan have filled in admirably, but Jordan will be getting the "Strasburg treatment" and be deactivated after a few more starts.

         

     

The Bullpen Lacks Consistency

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    Except for Tyler Clippard, the bullpen has been shaky at best.

    Drew Storen and Rafael "#Untuck" Soriano have combined to blow nine saves. Patience with Ryan Mattheus is wearing thin, now that he has had two poor relief appearances in a row.  Even though Craig Stammen, Fernando Abad and Ian Krol have had their moments, neither has been consistent enough to inspire confidence when they head out to the mound with a lead.

Poor Fielding and Hitting

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    With 73 errors, the Nationals are tied for the fourth-most in the majors.

    The struggles continue on the offensive side where they rank in the bottom third in runs, batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage. Davey Johnson has adjusted the lineup several times, but the results have not generated the necessary offensive spark on a consistent basis.

    Jayson Werth is the only player with a batting average above .300. Bryce Harper, as exciting a player as he is, has had his share of cold streaks to go along with the injuries that took him out of action for over a month. Danny Espinosa was a shell of the former player he used to be and was demoted to the minors.

    Exacerbating the underwhelming batting lineup, the bench players are also not having as big of an impact compared to last year. Steve Lombardozzi and Chad Tracy have filled in admirably, but Tyler Moore, Roger Bernadina and a handful of quick stopgaps have not been successful contributors on a regular basis.

Reasons to Be Optimistic

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    Ross Ohlendorf seems more than capable of filling in for an injured or ineffective starter. Rookies Taylor Jordan and Anthony Rendon were called up midseason and both have bright futures—Jordan as a member of the five-man rotation and Rendon as a regular in the lineup.

    The Nationals schedule for the rest of the season is not incredibly daunting; their opponents' winning percentage the rest of the season is .490.

    With the trade deadline today at 4:00 EST, some have suggested that the Nationals add another left-handed bat, but most expect them to stay the course and not make any moves.

    Then again, Ian Desmond has a strong opinion regarding the trade appeal of one of the Nationals’ mascots:


     

     

How Will It All Play Out?

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    Even though the Nationals have not provided much evidence to suggest a late-season push towards the playoffs, anything can still happen. No one predicted the Nationals would underperform the way they have so far, but this is a lesson learned by General Manager Mike Rizzo with shutting down Strasburg last season.

    Strasburg, who had Tommy John surgery two years prior to reaching an innings limit last September, wanted to keep playing, but management was firm in their decision. That choice will be ridiculed for every year the Nationals do not make the playoffs. Yes, his health was and should be a top priority, but that decision was based on career longevity statistics and the expectations that this club would succeed year after year. The window for success is only open for a short amount of time in any sport, and you have to seize each and every opportunity when your team has a chance to win a championship. Bottom line: The Nationals’ decision makers should have found a way to play Strasburg in the playoffs last year.

    Even with the majority of the roster intact from last season, Nationals fans and their organization, especially Rizzo, are realizing how unforgiving the sporting world is.

    This team wants to prove to its fans, and the rest of MLB, that last year was not a fluke. This is a good, young club that can compete for the World Series for several years. Now is the time to prove it, and in order to do that, the Nationals will have their work cut out for them—not just for the next two months, but for years to come.

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