The one piece of good news for the assembled Nats fans on South Capitol Street Sunday is that it did not rain sulphur from the sky.
That was about the only piece of good news, though, as the Dodgers ran roughshod over Jordan Zimmermann in the first two innings. Zimmermann had been a bright light for the Nationals through the first half of the season, but that bulb blew out in the 2nd, as the Dodgers batted around and scored 7 runs. Zimmermann was forced from the game, having given up 9 hits and 7 runs, after his shortest and worst outing of the season.
The Dodgers sent 11 men to the plate during that drubbing, which saw a pair of homers, a pair of walks, two singles and a double before a nice catch from Bryce Harper in deep center managed to end the shared waking nightmare that 34,758 hot fans experienced for twenty awful minutes. Hanley Ramirez and Matt Kemp each had home runs, both at approximately 380 feet, off Zimmermann early in the inning. Just three batters into the second, the game was over for the Nationals, even if we had to watch as the rest of it played out.
There were two bright spots on the day for the Nationals. The first came from Ross Ohlendorf, who put in six strong innings in relief, allowing just six hits, striking out six, and walking one. It was just the sort appearance the Nats have desperately needed from their bullpen, which been more like an angry bag of poisonous snakes the last few weeks: just as likely to bite you as bite someone else. The other bright spot came from the bat of Jayson Werth, who went 2-3 with a pair of home runs, both landing in the Dodger bullpen, each off Clayton Kershaw.
But those were the only bright moments of a day that resembled deepest winter in Alaska. The Dodgers completed the sweep of a vastly depleted Washington Nationals team. At times, it was as if the Nationals were moving in slow motion, unable to catch up to the pace of real life. Time is rapidly becoming the Nationals’ worst enemy. They’ve fallen behind the division lead 7 games, and the Wild Card is no more attainable.
With just ten weeks remaining before the end of the 2013 campaign, the Nationals would have to hit bottom and bounce pretty hard. This homestand, more so than any one before it or any that follow, is a critical turning point for this squad. With 4 games against the current Wild Card leading Pittsburgh Pirates next, followed by four against the 4th place Mets, the Nationals have to win six of them to see their season stand a chance at continuing into October.
All this leads me to my next point, which is something that upsets me that I have to write: I’m sorry, Nationals fans, in my writing here or elsewhere, lead you to believe this would be a World Series-winning team. The heady run of paper analysis through the winter, and through the early Spring, lead me to write based on the poetic nature of the game, of the eternal optimism that the return of baseball each year can give to me. I lead you astray. I had help, I admit, from writers with more experience than I have, but nonetheless I failed you as a writer.
In baseball, you have hot and cold streaks, but the statistics don’t lie. Last year wasn’t a breakout to a new plateau for all those players, it was a statistical aberration that results in a regression to the mean in the following seasons. The Nationals last year were a phenomenal confluence of amazing seasons – of once in a lifetime seasons – that lead them to a result that we all enjoyed during last year’s regular season.
This year, though, we’ve struggled to enjoy a merely .500 team – a mark which during the 2009 and 2010 seasons would have brought unthinkable joy – because of those expectations that the baseball community have conjured out of research, opinion and often blind optimism. This was a team that on paper I believed could win 100 games. Now, I suspect their actual total will be nearer to 80 than 85.
One thing that has occurred to me in recent days is that this team is as much Mike Rizzo’s team as it was last year, and much of the organizational frustration that the fan base is feeling ought to find a home at the General Manager’s office. Insofar as this team is his, then, it ought to be his responsibility when the season is done. As for the on-field duties, were this not Davey Johnson’s last season, I suspect that he would have already been relieved of his position, especially given his March remarks about “World Series or Bust.”
This is not to say that all in the future is darkness, Nats fans, and I don’t want you to get the impression that I am down on the future of the franchise. There is much to like about the core of this team: Strasburg, Harper, Gio, Zimmermann, Zimmerman and Werth are all with the team through 2015 at a bare minimum, which gives the Nationals some options to focus on that core and balance their needs. The question will be, though, can they learn the right lessons from this team to make it a possibility?
The needs of the Nationals are clear at this point: bench players that don’t make up a combined -3.5 WAR, #4 and #5 starters, either a renewed Denard Span or a CF that can rake, and the right side of the infield. That’s a pretty big shopping list for one winter, and as depleted as the upper level of the farm system is right now, not one they can take to Syracuse and Harrisburg and get a decent return.
But, what do I know? I picked this team to win 95 games.