During these trying times, are Nats trying too hard?
WASHINGTON -- For the first time since 2011, the Washington Nationals are below .500. But the south side of .500 is no longer their natural habitat.
At the moment, the Nationals are in a distinctly down period, having lost nine of their last 12, the last three straight at the hands of the St. Louis Cardinals.
There is too much talent here -- much too much talent -- for this situation to persist. There is no one-size-fits-all explanation for what has happened during this stretch. A few times this week, Nationals manager Davey Johnson has said regarding his team's recent struggles, "When it rains it pours." This, of course, is not a detailed, technical explanation. But it will serve as a description of what seems to be going on when a baseball team is not going well.
Earlier in the week, Johnson said that the Nationals' hitting was where it had been in the first half of 2012, and the pitching was the problem. And that was accurate.
Then, in the St. Louis series, the Washington offense disappeared, scoring a grand total of four runs in the three-game series. In the final chapter Wednesday afternoon, the Nats lost, 4-2, their offense being dramatically limited by St. Louis starter Jaime Garcia and three relievers.
Some of this must be credited to the St. Louis pitchers as opposed to blamed upon the Washington hitters. The way Adam Wainwright pitched Tuesday night, for instance, with the rare and semi-untouchable blend of command and power, the 1927 Yankees couldn't have done anything with him.
There have been suggestions that a wave of lofty expectations has led the Nationals to press. Some of those expectations are external and some are internal, but the expectations are at record levels for this franchise.
The Nationals, after all, won 98 regular-season games last year, leading the Major Leagues in the one category that mattered most. With all of their developing talent, particularly among the pitchers, they seemed to be a reasonable pick to win a division and a pennant -- and a World Series, for that matter.
"Maybe from everybody picking us as a candidate to win our division, everybody's trying to be a little better than they need to be instead of just relaxing, going out there and doing what you're capable of doing," Johnson said. "I don't really worry about it because I know the talent that's there. I know water seeks its level. We'll be fine. Just need to get going."
And it may be something that simple. Wednesday looked like a fine time to "get going" because the Nats were pitching their ace, Stephen Strasburg. Strasburg did pitch a shutout for six consecutive innings, the second through the seventh.
Unfortunately, he had given up three runs in the first. And the way the Cardinals pitched, those three runs were already too many.
The theme after the game, both in Johnson's press conference and the Nationals clubhouse, was: "We're trying to do too much." This used to come under the general heading "pressing," but let's say the two are closely related. Either way, this is a likely diagnosis. The Nationals expect to succeed. Going through a period of coming up repeatedly short over the last two weeks, it would be natural for individual players to attempt to shoulder more of the load themselves. That may be a noble instinct, but it is not the way this game is best played.
"The makeup is such on this ballclub that they try to do more," Johnson said. "Pitching, hitting -- we've just got to overcome that. And we can. The main thing is, we've just got to stay positive.
"We're just not doing the things we're capable of doing right now. Guys are trying to do too much. Guys are trying to create something that's not there yet. It's just one of those things. Battle out of it."
Strasburg is 1-4, but has pitched well enough to be 4-1. Losing record aside, there is nothing wrong with him.
"Stras, the first inning, he was throwing good, but he was just up with everything," Johnson said. "Then he started pitching. Made it look easy. That's the good thing."
With all the soaring expectations for this club, you could see where a 10-11 start might provoke some gnashing of teeth. But this does not need to become a permanent condition. Looking upward from Nationals Park, it was clear that the sky over our nation's capital was not falling.
Outfielder Jayson Werth summed up the Nationals' current situation succinctly: "They always say, 'Better to be lucky than good.' We're neither right now."
We can't tell about the lucky part, but sooner or later, probably sooner, the Nationals will be good again. There is too much talent on their roster for them to be anything less.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.