Aug 14, 2015, 6:00 AM EDT
This space could be devoted to a breakdown of Thursday night’s 3-1 loss in San Francisco, with mentions of Stephen Strasburg’s rocky first inning but impressive rebound after that, Yunel Escobar’s game-opening homer followed by a complete lack of offense by the Nationals after that and yet another case of this bullpen’s inability to keep the score of the game intact (whether ahead, tied or behind).
Alas, a comprehensive look at merely the latest in a string of frustrating losses by the Nats doesn’t really seem like a productive use of time and space right now. This team’s problem isn’t what’s happening on any given night. It’s what has happened in the big picture over the last two weeks.
On July 31, the Nationals arrived at Citi Field holding a 3-game lead over a Mets club that appeared to be in disarray. They had just acquired Jonathan Papelbon in a trade that surprised most — and upset some — but ultimately seemed like a move that would help address the team’s biggest area of need. They also had just activated Anthony Rendon, Ryan Zimmerman and Jayson Werth off the disabled list, giving the lineup a sorely needed boost.
So, what has happened since then? Pretty much everything negative you can imagine happening.
The Nationals’ lineup hasn’t been boosted at all by the return of those key players, Zimmerman’s solid production notwithstanding. Papelbon has been a non-factor, appearing in all of four games, only two of them save situations. The bullpen as a whole has been scored upon in 11-of-14 games, posting a collective 5.50 ERA.
The Mets, on the hand, have completely reversed course. Buoyed by the acquisitions of Yoenis Cespedes, Juan Uribe and Kelly Johnson, they’ve taken the sport’s 30th-ranked offense (which was averaging 3.6 runs per game) and turned it into one of the game’s most-productive groups (averaging 5.3 runs per game since July 31). And their already-fantastic pitching staff has become even better, going from a 3.29 staff ERA through July 30 to a 2.29 staff ERA since.
And so you end up with the following facts about these two division rivals: Since July 31, the Mets are 11-2, while the Nationals are 4-10. And thus what had been a 3-game lead for the Nats only two weeks ago now has morphed into a 4 1/2-game deficit faster than you can say Noah Syndergaard.
Which leads to the real pertinent question of the moment: How on earth do the Nationals flip the script again and put themselves back in position to take the NL East title before it completely slips out of their hands?
Manager Matt Williams alluded after Thursday night’s game in San Francisco to some potential changes for Friday night’s contest against the Giants. He most likely means some lineup juggling and perhaps the insertion of one or two bench guys. The odds of some truly dramatic shakeup seem unlikely at this point.
Williams only has so many reasonable alternatives at his disposal. Want to bench Werth, now 8-for-56 since coming off the DL and owner of a .185 batting average, .256 on-base percentage and .530 OPS for the season? OK, your backup left fielders are Clint Robinson and Tyler Moore.
Fine, prefer simply to move Werth down in the lineup where he can’t kill as many rallies? Well, who are you going to move up to the No. 5 spot? Your choices are Ian Desmond, Wilson Ramos and Michael Taylor.
This is where the continued absence of Denard Span really devastates the Nationals. If Span is healthy, Taylor falls into the fourth outfielder role, available to take over for anybody else who is struggling. Instead, Taylor is forced to play every day as the only true center fielder on the roster.
It’s been said before, but it needs to be said again: The Nationals are 35-24 this season when Span plays, a .593 winning percentage, or the equivalent of a 96-66 club. When Span doesn’t play, they’re now 23-32, a .418 winning percentage that equates to a 68-94 team. Kind of a significant difference there, huh?
But it can’t be that simple, can it? Is a healthy Denard Span really the difference between a 96-win team and a 68-win team?
No, not really. But there’s still no denying Span’s importance to this lineup. Think about it this way: If he’s playing, somebody is hitting fifth besides Werth. Maybe Zimmerman. Maybe Escobar. Maybe Rendon. Whatever the case, the lineup is lengthened considerably just with the addition of its regular leadoff hitter.
The Nationals, though, can’t just sit around and wait for Span to return from his back injury. If he even does return.
No, this team has no choice but to try to win with what it has. There’s no magic trade to be made, not in mid-August. There’s no magic minor-league call-up that’s going to take this team on his shoulders. (Sorry, even if Trea Turner is promoted from Class AAA Syracuse, he doesn’t solve the real problem right now.)
This is the team Mike Rizzo built, the team Matt Williams has to manage. They could have chosen to do something more dramatic before July 31, but they chose to bank on their returning regulars carrying the load at the plate.
That hasn’t happened. But it’s going to have to happen if this team wants to right itself and fulfill its immense potential.
For better or worse, this is who the Nationals are. The question is which team they’ll ultimately resemble: The one that led the division by 3 games on July 31, or the the one that has given it all back and more over the last two weeks?
FINAL NL EAST STANDINGS
ON THE RADIO
As ESPN-980 AM's Nats Insider, Mark makes daily appearances on the station's various shows. Here's the 2015 schedule (subject to change)...
MON: 12:45 p.m.
TUE: 2:30 p.m.
WED: 4:30 p.m.
THU: 2:30 p.m.
FRI: 5:30 p.m.
SAT: 10:30 a.m.
*All times Eastern. You can also listen to the station on 94.3 FM, 92.7 FM and online at ESPN980.com. Click here for past audio clips.
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