After sweep, harsh reality sets in for Nationals

After sweep, harsh reality sets in for Nationals
August 8, 2013, 1:00 am
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Werth: 'The losses are definitely piling up'

The Nationals took the field Monday night still clinging to the hope — ill-fated as it may have been — they could save their season with a dominant showing against the Braves.

They trudged off that same field Wednesday night all but acknowledging that hope has been dashed, and suddenly taking a long-term view about this franchise's potential. In some cases, even looking beyond 2013.

"It's getting to a point where we're just not winning games," right fielder Jayson Werth said following a 6-3 loss that completed a three-game sweep at the hands of Atlanta. "You hate to accept losing at any point. But the losses are definitely piling up."

The losses, and the deficit. The Nationals came out of the All-Star break trailing the Braves by six games, a legitimate hole but certainly one that could be overcome. Less than three weeks later, they now sit a staggering 15 1/2 games back in the NL East.

Even Bryce Harper, who one week ago declared "this [thing] ain't over," admitted the Nationals' goal no longer is a division title.

"We've got about a month-and-a-half left," the left fielder said. "Hopefully we can chase that Wild Card down."

At this rate, it will require an epic comeback for the Nationals to secure the NL's final postseason berth. They're a full nine games behind the Reds in that race, with 48 to play.

How did it come to this? How did a team overwhelmingly picked across the nation on Opening Day as World Series favorites put themselves in a such a big hole that they're already forced to look to the future one week into August?

"We're a good team," right-hander Jordan Zimmermann said. "We all know it. It doesn't look like it right now. We're good. We're just not playing good ball right now."

As much as they want to believe it, the cold, hard truth is this: The 2013 Nationals really aren't a good baseball team.

Since opening the season 7-2, they've gone 47-58. To put that into perspective, only seven major-league clubs have been worse during that stretch: the Mets, Brewers, Giants, Marlins, Twins, White Sox and Astros.

The nadir came over the last three nights. Presented with one final opportunity to climb back into the race against the chief rivals, the Nationals were swept by the Braves, done in by a complete lack of clutch hitting and a penchant for failing to do the little things that separate winning and losing at this level.

To wit: The Nationals were a collective 1-for-19 with runners in scoring position in this series, capping by Wednesday night's 0-for-4 performance. And three of those four opportunities didn't even come until the bottom of the ninth, when they loaded the bases against Craig Kimbrel and actually brought the winning run to the plate yet couldn't bring even one man home.

Wilson Ramos' line out to right ended it, a well-struck ball but one that nevertheless failed to produce the desired result.

"I think Willy hit that ball pretty good," said Harper, who jump-started the rally with a leadoff double. "If he gets it over [Jason] Heyward's head, then it's a tie ballgame, or we're down by one. We made a good run in that last inning."

The Nationals might not have needed to attempt such a dramatic rally in the ninth had their bullpen been able to keep the game tied earlier. But Fernando Abad, Ryan Mattheus and Ian Krol combined to allow four runs in the seventh and eighth innings, putting their teammates in a three-run hole late.

"It's pretty frustrating, especially because we could have changed the momentum of the game," Krol said. "Things could have been a lot different."

Things have been different all season for the Nationals, just not the way anyone anticipated. There are 48 games to go, but the harsh reality has set in. There won't be October baseball in the District this year.

They can only hope there will be next year and beyond.

"I read something the other day, where I found some notes from before I signed here," said Werth, who inked his seven-year, $126 million contract in December 2010. "I had written some stuff down about the different teams I was going to eventually play for. I was just kind of reading over the notes, and for the Nats one of the things said: 'We would be good toward the end of my contract.' It kind of put things in perspective with the success last year, and really where we're at now with the guys.

"We're still in the building-type phase. I know with all the expectations, it didn't really seem like that. But we've got a lot of young players. The direction's still good. We've got a lot of young talent, and there's a lot of things to look forward to here in Washington."

Just not in 2013.