The Nats were just swept in Philadelphia. Before this past weekend, they hadn’t even lost back-to-back games since they fell to the Phillies on July 30 and August 1. Add last Wednesday’s loss to Atlanta and the losing streak has reached four (gasp!) straight.
The National League-leading Nats’ only longer tailspin this season was a 5-game skid against San Diego, Los Angeles and Arizona from April 26-May 1 back before many Washingtonians had heard of Kurt Suzuki, Katie Ledecky or Alfred Morris or many Americans knew Paul Ryan from Ron Paul.
The Nats are off tonight before starting a two-game series in Miami tomorrow. All-Star shortstop Ian Desmond, who missed the Philadelphia series with an ailing hamstring, and slugger Michael Morse, who has been out since injuring his right hand on Friday night, might both remain sidelined. Second-place Atlanta plays lowly San Diego tonight and can close within four games with a victory. Washington’s lead hasn’t been lower than that since Aug. 6.
So it’s time to panic, right? Wrong. Very wrong. Cy Young candidate Stephen Strasburg, who has been red-hot this month (4-0, 1.50 earned run average), will be on the mound tomorrow against Miami, which he shut out on three hits over six innings just 22 days ago. After years of futility against the Marlins, the Nats have won five of the last eight meetings.
Then, after a four-game set against rising St. Louis, Washington plays four against hapless Chicago, three more against Miami and three at the New York Mets, who have joined the Cubs and Marlins by raising the white flag on their seasons. By that point, there will be just 19 games left in the 2012 campaign.
Admittedly, Atlanta’s schedule – Padres, Phillies, Colorado, Mets, Milwaukee — is even softer, but don’t forget that for all of their success from 1991-2005 (14 NL East titles, five National League crowns and a World Series championship), the Braves are basically the same team which lost 13 of its last 18 games last season to lose the wild card to the Cardinals on the final night.
And even if the Braves somehow catch the Nats – who. yes, are going to shut down All-Star Strasburg for the season in just a couple of weeks – Washington leads Los Angeles by 8.5 games and plummeting Pittsburgh by nine. The Dodgers and Pirates are the teams currently out of the NL playoff picture but nearest to qualifying for postseason. If the Nats, who lead the majors with a .606 winning percentage, even go 17-18 the rest of the way, the Dodgers and Pirates would have to go 25-9 and 26-9, respectively, to equal Washington’s 94-68 record.
Sure, L.A. just added a big bat in Adrian Gonzalez and a fine arm in Josh Beckett in a trade with Boston. And sure, Pittsburgh has MVP candidate Andrew McCutchen. But neither team is catching Washington barring a total collapse by the Nats. And Davey Johnson is too proven a manager, his rotation (even without Strasburg) and bullpen are too good and his lineup (even if Morse and Desmond remain out a while) is too strong for that to happen.
The Nats are postseason-bound. Book it.
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last two Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since last March. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin