The Nationals' slow start isn't the end of the world, but they can't afford to let it drag much longer — they've lost their margin of error and the NL East isn't what it used to be.
WASHINGTON — Sixteen games is, essentially, one-tenth of the baseball season. That’s not a large percentage, but it’s a notable one, enough to use as a barometer for how a team looks. After Sunday’s loss to the Rockies, who took three of four at Nats Park this weekend, the Washington Nationals are 7-9.
This is not the end of the world, nor the most disconcerting start among expected World Series contenders (hello, Dodgers). The combination of the Nats’ sluggish opening half of April with the Mets’ lightning-hot one has left them in fourth place, six games back. What it means, simply, is that the margin of error is gone. But don’t just take my word for it — look at the numbers.
Baseball Prospectus projects the Nationals to go 80-66 the rest of the way, which would leave them with 87 wins and a pretty good chance at a playoff spot. But the same system also picks the Mets to go just 73-75 from here on out, leaving them at 85-77. It also picks the 9-5 Phillies to go 76-72, finishing at 85-77 as well. In other words, if the three teams play to projection from here on out, they’ll all be neck-and-neck come October.
You can find a statistic to support nearly any theory of what the Nationals’ start means. No team with a losing record through 16 games made the playoffs last year. In their four division-title runs, the Nationals have never played 16 games without a winning record, their worst mark being 9-7 in 2014. The last time they missed the playoffs — when they won just 83 games and finished second to the Mets in 2015 — they also started 7-9.
But the Dodgers were only 8-8 through 16 games last year, and sat at just 9-11 on April 24 before reeling off one of the hottest stretches in modern baseball history to lead the sport with 104 wins, coming within a win of a World Series title.
It’s a tough time for the Nats to embark on a bicoastal, three-city jaunt to Queens, Los Angeles and San Francisco. They’ll have neither Stephen Strasburg nor Max Scherzer on rotation for that opening series, where they’ll open against Jacob DeGrom Monday night. And as poorly as the Dodgers have played so far, they’re on turn to run out Rich Hill, Clayton Kershaw and Hyun-Jin Ryu. As far as early-season road trips go, the way Washington has played so far has made this one about as big as you can get.
The Nats should get Daniel Murphy back eventually — he made his way to extended Spring Training in Florida last weekend. They should get Adam Eaton back as well; he’s been great when he’s been on the field. They should win better than 20 percent of their one-run games (they’re off to a 1-4 start), especially with their strong back of the bullpen.
But “should” doesn’t always happen, as the opening tenth of the season attests.
Strasburg: "I think something’s missing right now. In times like that, I think you can sit there and let it keep going or grind. And I think that’s what we’re trying to do and that’s all we really can do. We’re too good of a team to not be winning games. It’s going to change."
We all know the Nats are talented, but their most frequent competitors have gotten better as well. Since 2014, the Nats have dominated the division, going 187-117 (.615) against the NL East while going a respectable, but much less dominant, 184-160 (.535) against the rest of the league. While the Marlins may be a disaster this year, the rest of the division looks to be more competitive, meaning fewer easy wins than in recent years. To wit, Washington is just 3-6 in its first nine divisional games.
Finally, the camels. Davey Martinez’s Spring Training stunt was meant to be a lighthearted way of addressing the elephant that looms behind any conversation of this era of Nationals baseball. It was the type of thing that his mentor, Joe Maddon, has used to lighten the mood and ease the grind of a long season. But as the first public, unorthodox move by a new skipper, it was bound to draw undue attention. And with a lackluster start, the citizens appear to be losing their patience.
The camels were brought to camp on a Wednesday — hump day. In Washington’s first Wednesday game of the season, with Max Scherzer on the hill in Atlanta, they lost to the Braves, 7-1. This past Wednesday, back at home against the Braves, they lost, 5-3, in 12 innings. Their next Wednesday game will be the series finale in Flushing, against a Mets team that swept the Nats in Washington. That would be a good time to get over hump day, which would be a big first step toward giving themselves a chance to get over that bigger hump in October.
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