Nats fall below .500, now 6 1/2 behind Braves

Nats fall below .500, now 6 1/2 behind Braves
June 2, 2013, 7:00 pm
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Time for concern for Nationals?

ATLANTA — The last place anybody inside the Nationals clubhouse expected to find themselves on June 2 of a "World Series or Bust" season is exactly the place they find themselves today after a 6-3 loss to the Braves: With a losing record.

It doesn't matter how many All-Stars make up their roster, how much experience their manager brings to the table, how many savvy moves their GM has made to address various areas of need. And it certainly doesn't matter how many people predicted this 98-win ballclub from one year ago would take it up another notch this season and experience October jubilation.

You are what your record says you are. And right now, the Nationals are 28-29, a full 6 1/2 games behind the NL East-leading Braves.

"We deserve to be where we're at right now," first baseman Adam LaRoche said. "We've played like crap."

There are built-in excuses, most notably the lack of a host of key players on the active roster due to injury, but this team was on the verge of making a major statement this weekend against its toughest division rival. After eking out a 3-2 victory Friday night despite the early exit of Stephen Strasburg with a strained lat muscle, the Nationals had a chance to make it two in a row against Atlanta on Saturday but squandered a golden opportunity late and wound up losing 2-1 in 10 innings.

That turned today's series finale into something of a must-win affair, a troubling thought given the fact Davey Johnson was handing the ball for only the second time to Nate Karns in such a pressure situation. The rookie right-hander again showed flashes of promise, but he again couldn't complete five innings. And after Zach Duke poured more gasoline on the fire out of the bullpen, and after one of the majors' least-potent lineups went into hibernation over the game's final seven innings — it finished in a 1-for-26 slump — another ho-hum loss was in the books.

Instead of building on the momentum they created with Friday's win, the Nationals lost all semblance of it and now head home having lost ground to Atlanta.

"There's still plenty of time," Johnson said. "We right this ship and get things going in the right direction. We've still got plenty of time."

Well, yes, there are still 105 games to be played this season, and far greater deficits have been overcome. But these Nationals also face a difficult task, trying to find the balance between staying patient because there's a long way still to go and not becoming complacent and just assuming everything will get better.

"Your trials, and things like that, that stuff builds character," shortstop Ian Desmond said. "If we can maintain a good clubhouse, if we can keep our clubhouse under control, keep guys tight, when the bad stuff fades away, we're only going to be better when we're good. This stuff is just going to make us stronger throughout the season. We're going to hit our stride eventually. I know the fans and everyone else are getting tired of hearing that. But it's bound to happen. We're a good ballclub."

To a man, the Nationals insist they've got the right mix of players, both on the field and in the clubhouse. And they eagerly await the return of their injured stars, beginning Tuesday when Jayson Werth is scheduled to be activated off the disabled list following a dominant rehab stint at Class A Potomac (he went 9-for-16 over five games and homered twice this afternoon).

"That'll be a shot in the arm," Johnson said. "He must've been really feeling frisky. He'll be ready to carry us on his shoulders, I'm sure."

Werth's return certainly will help, but the Nationals' lineup will continue to suffer from the loss of Bryce Harper, now on the DL and ineligible to return until at least June 11. Today's loss dropped Washington to 3-11 when Harper is not in the starting lineup.

And they are proceeding forward now without two of their top starting pitchers, Stephen Strasburg and Ross Detwiler, each facing an uncertain timetable for returning from muscle strains in their sides. They'll likely need Karns to make at least one more start, hoping the rookie can make more progress in his third big-league appearance and enjoy a bit more success against the toughest hitters he's ever faced.

"They're making it difficult for me out there," the right-hander said. "But I'm just going to continue to improve. Hopefully it turns around where it's difficult for them instead of myself."

If the Nationals are going to turn things around, they're going to have to get contributions not only from young players filling in for injured stars but from healthy veterans who haven't carried their weight so far. Desmond is hitting .265 with a .298 on-base percentage. Denard Span is hitting .264 with a .318 on-base percentage. And Danny Espinosa, playing through his own injuries, is hitting .158 with 47 strikeouts and only four walks.

"We've got to start ... not forcing things to happen, but we need to just play better ball," Espinosa said. "Not panic, but just play better ball. Injuries have hurt us this year so far. Not to have that be the excuse for where we're at right now, but it doesn't make it easier when you're missing a couple big bats in the lineup."

Injuries or not, the Nationals know there's only so much time left to get it together. In order to get to 90 wins by season's end, they'll need to go 62-43 (a .590 winning percentage). In order to get to 95 wins, they'll need to 67-38 (a hefty .638 clip).

Is that possible? Yes. But each passing day that does not result in a victory only makes the challenge more daunting for a ballclub that finds itself in a place nobody expected it would be today.

"It'll turn," LaRoche said. "If you've got a good team, at the end of the year, it'll show. If you don't, it's gonna show."