Nationals hope only 2013 isn't their year

The Washington Nationals reached the 100-game mark in the season with a 5-1 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates on Tuesday night. Actually, “reached” might be a charitable way to describe it. Failed, flailed, struggled, stumbled, scuffled and slouched are more appropriate and creative verb choices that immediately spring to mind.

Several days of rest, relaxation and time away from the field at the All-Star break haven’t had the desired therapeutic effect on the Nats’ collective psyche. They’re winless in five games since the break, and their overall record has dropped to 48-52 after 10 losses in their past 12 games.

The Chicago Cubs (minus-19) and New York Mets (minus-24) have better run differentials than Washington’s minus-29, and Coolstandings.com gives the Nationals a 5.9 percent chance of making the playoffs after they managed a feeble three hits against Gerrit Cole and the Pittsburgh Pirates' bullpen. Realistically, the Nationals' chances of winning the NL East are just a hair better than Ryan Braun’s chances of capturing the Milwaukee Brewers’ Good Guy Award for 2013.

Some themes naturally linger for ill-fated teams. Last year, Stephen Strasburg and Operation Shutdown were the focus of a national debate over the merits of protecting (versus coddling) young franchise pitchers. This year, manager Davey Johnson put a target on his team’s back with his “World Series or bust” proclamation at the winter meetings in December. Almost eight months later, the Nationals are taking the “bust” portion of Johnson's statement to the extreme.

“They’ve been a huge disappointment,” said a National League scout. “They haven’t handled the success of 2012, and now being the hunted, they haven’t responded to that challenge.”

The Nationals are making an army of prognosticators look bad. In February, ESPN.com surveyed 43 baseball “experts” on the respective league races, and 29 predicted the Nats would make the World Series and 16 picked them to go the distance. (Full disclosure: I picked the Nats to win the division and lose to Cincinnati in the National League Championship Series).

While Ross Detwiler’s injury issues and Dan Haren’s home run-itis have been a problem at the back end of the rotation, the Nationals’ offense has been almost bafflingly dreadful. They’re 14th in the league in runs (367), 14th in on-base percentage (.300) and 11th in slugging percentage (.385). They don’t walk much as a team, they’re middle-of-the-pack in stolen bases, and they’re hitting a mere .236 with runners in scoring position.

Shortstop Ian Desmond is the only Washington position player who has statistically performed above his positional peer group from Day 1. Jayson Werth and Bryce Harper both have OPSes above .800, but they’ve missed a combined 68 games because of injuries. Since his return from a knee injury on July 1, Harper is hitting .212 with one home run in 66 at-bats and hasn’t remotely resembled the player who was gunning for MVP consideration in April.

The biggest drag on the Washington offense has been Denard Span, who hasn’t even been the best former Minnesota Twins center fielder in the NL East this season. That honor goes to Philadelphia's Ben Revere, who was raking at .305 when he suffered a broken foot before the All-Star break. Span, in contrast, is hitting .263 with a .319 OBP, and was recently dropped to the seventh spot in the order when Johnson moved Harper to leadoff to try to jump-start the lineup. It's getting awfully tiresome for Nats fans watching Span roll over balls and hit weak grounders to second.

“There’s a guy that runs well as a leadoff hitter who pulls the ball,” an AL scout said of Span. “He kind of mistakenly hits the ball the other way or up the middle once in a while. But he drags the bat through the zone -- he doesn’t have a lot of bat quickness -- and offensively he just doesn’t get a lot of things going for that club.”

The mood at Nationals Park hit a season-low Monday when general manager Mike Rizzo sought the first refuge of the offensively inept, firing hitting coach Rick Eckstein and replacing him with Rick Schu. Johnson opposed the move, which led to the inevitable speculation that there might be some tension in his relationship with Rizzo. If there was even a smidge of a chance that Johnson might return for one more go-round in 2014, the strain of this season probably scotched that possibility.

Realistically, the Nationals are just going to have to play out the schedule, reassemble in Viera, Fla., in February and chalk this up as a bad year. They have several young core players (Harper, Strasburg, Desmond, Anthony Rendon, Jordan Zimmermann, Gio Gonzalez and Wilson Ramos) who make up the team’s long-term foundation. And Werth and Ryan Zimmerman are signed to long-term deals for a total of $226 million, so they’re not going anywhere, either.

Speculation about the pending free agency of Haren and Kurt Suzuki isn’t exactly a riveting topic of conversation in Nationals-land. And while there have been rumblings that reliever Drew Storen might be available in the right trade, he has had a disappointing year and the Nationals would be selling low on him.

Barring a sudden, inexplicable surge of energy and offensive fervor, the Nats will officially descend to afterthought status when Robert Griffin III and the Redskins begin training camp this week in Richmond, Va. Two more months of baseball remain to be played this season in Washington. In all likelihood, it will not be meaningful baseball.