Aug 17, 2015, 9:33 AM EDT
Before Sunday, the Nationals had enjoyed rare success against Giants ace Madison Bumgarner. They had beaten him in their previous five matchups, they crushed him on the Fourth of July and they even gave him his only loss in the 2014 postseason.
Naturally, that was not to continue forever, and Bumgarner finally broke through at what was the worst of times for the Nationals. The Giants lefty carved up the Nats in nine shutout innings with 14 strikeouts, one walk and just three hits allowed on Sunday. The 2014 World Series MVP also added a home run (his 4th of the season) and an RBI double. He’s the first pitcher since Steve Carlton in 1977 to strike out 14 and hit a home run in the same game.
The Nationals didn’t even move a runner past second base in Sunday’s 5-0 loss. All three hits Bumgarner allowed were singles. He also set a career-high by getting the Nats to miss on 46 percent of their swings. His previous best was 29 percent.
It was another awful performance for the Nats in a long string of them. They are now losers of six straight – matching their longest losing streak since 2009 – and sit at 10-20 since the All-Star break. Sunday’s defeat moved them to 58-59 on the year, or below the .500 mark for the first time since May 6.
Add it all up and the details are frightening. The Nationals have a losing record on August 17. In almost any other year or any other division in baseball, their season would essentially be over. The obituaries would already be written. Better luck next year.
How could they possibly still be in the playoff race, despite them playing arguably their worst baseball since Mike Rizzo took over as GM? Well, fortunately for the Nats, they are in one of the worst MLB divisions in recent history.
The 2015 Washington Nationals may simply not be a good team, but neither are the 2015 New York Mets. While the Nats were getting their clocks cleaned by the Giants, the Mets were also looking like the inferior club against a team with a better record.
The Mets were swept by the Pirates over the weekend, so the Nationals did not lose any ground in the division race in the last three days. The deficit remains at 4 1/2 games in the division, despite a 9 1/2 (!) game hole in the NL Wild Card race. If it weren’t for the NL East being so terrible, the Nationals would be toast.
But, as several Nats players will tell you, they just have to beat the Mets. Right now New York is on pace to win just 86 games. If they won the NL East with just 86 wins, they would be the worst division winner since the 2008 Dodgers who went 84-78.
Every once in a while this type of thing happens in the NFL, where a team will win its division with a losing record or not much better. It starts up debates about the division format itself and whether it rewards teams that have no business being in the playoffs. That’s basically what is happening here. Neither the Nationals or Mets looks deserving of a playoff spot right now, but that is the reality we face.
It may be a terrible thing for the Giants, for example, who right now sit outside of the final playoff spot despite holding a better record than the division-leading Mets. But for the Nats, it’s a gift of incredible luck. This team is on pace to be worse than the 2013 club that missed the playoffs. Yet they are still within striking distance of repeating as division champs.
Now, that shouldn’t make any Nationals fan feel particularly good about how the team is playing right now. They aren’t playing up to their capabilities whatsoever, especially given their relative health at this point. They have run out of excuses and they just keep on losing.
But the current state of the NL East should give Nats fans at least a small glimmer of hope, that it’s not all over yet. The Nationals could still turn this thing around and make something of what is inching closer to being a lost season.
Of course, we’ve been saying some variation that for weeks now, and time is legitimately running out. They have 45 games left to figure it out, but somehow they still have a chance.
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.
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