It's one thing to consistently lose to a good team. It's quite another to consistently get beaten up at a rate that suggests there is a vast talent difference between the two clubs, which nobody believes is the case when the Nationals play the Braves.
But the numbers don't lie, and the numbers at this point are staggering. After Thursday night's 3-0 loss on South Capitol Street, the Nationals are 7-19 against their chief division rivals over the last two seasons. That's a .269 winning percentage. Throw the equally dominant Cardinals into the mix, and the Nats are now 9-30 against those two traditional NL powers since 2013. That's a .231 winning percentage, which equates to a 37-win pace over a full season.
Small sample size, yes, but for all intents and purposes a Nationals club that looks and plays like a legitimate contender against everybody else in the world somehow looks and plays like the worst team in baseball history when matched up with Atlanta and St. Louis.
"I don't know what it is," first baseman Adam LaRoche said. "You've got to think losing that many games, it's not all coincidence. They play us tough, plain and simple. They come up with some big hits, and we seem to not get a whole lot of action on the basepaths. I don't know what it is. At this point, between them and St. Louis, we're just kind of snakebit."
Whether this vast disparity in results is merely the product of poor execution and perhaps some poor luck, or whether there's something more disturbing — something mental — going on, is a matter of opinion.
"I don't have the history, so I don't buy into that," rookie manager Matt Williams said. "I think that if we execute, if we do things properly, we've got a chance to win every day, regardless who we play. Tonight they got us, and we'll be ready tomorrow. You can't look any further than that. You can't peek around the corner and you can't look back."
There are, of course, three more games to be played this weekend. Win two of them, and the Nationals will maintain their 1 1/2-game lead in the NL East. Even if they win only once, they'll trail the Braves by a mere 1/2-game, with the season not yet halfway completed.
But each time they lose to this opponent, the challenge becomes all the more daunting. It's a fine line. The Nats have to start playing good baseball and winning these games, yet the last thing they want to do is start trying too hard to win these games, because that only makes things worse.
"I don't think anything is psychological," Ryan Zimmerman said. "They're winning games. Just like two years ago when they couldn't beat us. Just something that happens in baseball. Just continue to go out there and try and win each game."
It's easier said than done. The Nationals didn't necessarily play poor baseball Thursday night. They were clean in the field. They got a good, if not great, pitching performance from Jordan Zimmermann (two runs over seven innings). And they were dominated by good pitching, headlined by Maryland native Gavin Floyd, who tossed six innings of shutout ball before unfortunately departing in the seventh with what later was diagnosed as a fractured bone in his surgically repaired elbow.
At the same time, the Nats squandered what few opportunities they had at the plate. After Floyd left the game, they stranded Jayson Werth on second base with three straight groundballs to short from the heart of their lineup. They also saw more than a few of their guys flail away helplessly at breaking balls well out of the strike zone.
"When we do have opportunities, we need to execute," LaRoche said. "When we get pitches to hit, we need to not miss them. Probably a combination of that, being more patient. Defensively, it seems like when we play these guys, regardless of how we change our defensive placement, they find a way to find holes. That's just kind of been their track record against us. So it's not necessarily the longball or the double, it's just a lot of well-placed singles. They continue to do it, and we don't."
In the end, there is no explanation for the vast disparity in results when these two teams play. On paper, they look evenly matched. On the field, it has been no contest for 1 1/2 seasons now.
And there's no telling when — or if — the script will change.