The Giants handed the Nationals their sixth consecutive loss on Sunday, dipping their record below .500 for the first time since May 6. Their ninth shutout of the year kept the Nationals 4 1/2 games out of first in the NL East and 9 1/2 out of the second wild card spot, a widening ravine that seems increasingly unlikely they’ll be able to traverse with each additional loss. Baseball fans are often reminded that the MLB season is a long one, but with just 45 games remaining, the Nationals are running out of time to live up to the expectations set for them.
Nine teams could have swept their opponents on Sunday. Four completed the feat, and the Giants’ four-game sweep of the Nationals was perhaps the least surprising. Madison Bumgarner was brilliant. He limited the Nats to three hits in his complete-game shutout and struck out 14 batters on top of going 2 for 3 with a home run. Bumgarner, Brandon Belt and Hunter Pence drove in five runs to outdo Joe Ross and the Nationals’ bullpen in the Giants’ 5–0 win. But the Nationals’ lack of offense in response was not a Sunday afternoon aberration. It has become a theme of their slog through the west coast and all of August.
Washington’s losing streak began with a 5–0 loss to the Dodgers last Tuesday, but its real decline began at the beginning of the month. On Aug. 2, the surging Mets used a three-game sweep to force their NL East foes to cede a division lead they had held for 64 days of the season, and the Nationals have only sunk further into second place since then.
In August, the Nationals are 4–12 against mostly NL West opponents. After the Mets, they played the Diamondbacks and Rockies, both sub-.500 teams, before facing the Dodgers and Giants, who are slugging it out for first in the West. The Nats did not win any of those series.
On this road trip, they faced world-class pitching: Zack Greinke, Clayton Kershaw and Bumgarner across six days. It’s doubtful any team would have volunteered to trade schedules with the Nationals, but it’s also doubtful any team would be scared to face them in the postseason after the way they played this week.
With each game, another disjointed performance highlighted why Washington has only had three winning streaks of more than three games this season. Some of the Nats’ own world-class pitchers failed them—though Jordan Zimmermann and Stephen Strasburg did nothing to deserve the losses they were handed after their quality starts on Wednesday and Thursday—and their hitters didn’t do much to make up the difference.
Max Scherzer and Gio Gonzalez logged their worst starts of the season, spiking the Nationals’ August ERA to 5.23. Scherzer allowed six runs over three innings on Friday, and Gonzalez allowed six over just 2 2/3 on Saturday. Lackluster performances from usually reliable hitters like Jayson Werth (.130/.192/.239 in August) and Anthony Rendon (.192/.276/.288) have doomed the offense to a .232 collective batting average with a -25 run differential in August. Bryce Harper has been phenomenal (though he struck out three times on Sunday) but he’s only allowed to hit once per nine batters.
The Nationals now enter a stretch of their schedule that will see them match up against the Brewers, Padres and Marlins. All have losing records. Then they face the juggernaut Cardinals to take them into September. They have a chance to turn their season around, thereby preventing another year of evidence mounting that the Nationals are a team that caves under expectations, but they are running out of time. The keys to Washington’s success will be its starting pitchers performing like the All-Stars they are and its hitters being efficient in their production. Over the six-game losing streak, the offense has averaged 5.8 hits and only two runs per game. While garnering less than six hits per game isn’t great, it’s what those hits become that counts. The Giants needed only seven hits to score five runs on Sunday.
There are a few bright spots amidst the Nationals’ failures. Their lineup is finally healthy, with Denard Span the only outstanding player on the disabled list after Werth, Rendon, Strasburg and Ryan Zimmerman all recently rejoined the squad. Ian Desmond, who has been struggling all year, seems to be having a late-season resurgence, hitting .294/.357/.569 with four home runs in August. Scherzer and Gonzalez are too talented to have season-worst starts every time they take the mound, and with Strasburg back, the rotation is looking as strong as ever. The Pirates even did the Nationals a favor this weekend by sweeping the Mets and slowing down their recent tear.
But the Nats are going to need to take ownership of their place in the standings and turn any positive developments into results, and soon. Otherwise they may quickly find that a season that began with such promise has already slipped out of their grasp.