Sports

Nationals Are Down, But Definitely Not Out

by David Elfin
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credit: Greg Fiume/Getty Images

credit: Greg Fiume/Getty Images

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Your team with the best record in the majors has been outscored 20-4 in the past two games, 22-7 in the series. Your hitters, so dominant since the All-Star break, have stranded 30 runners in three games and are 3-for-24 with runners in scoring position. Your league-leading pitching staff has a 7.27 earned run average in the series.

Of course, I’m describing the Nationals whose one-sided defeats in Games 2 and 3 of the National League Division Series have them just one more loss from their glorious season coming to an abrupt end as they head into Game 4 this afternoon at Nats Park.

What’s more, Washington’s slump didn’t just start in the NLDS. The Nats, 89-54 when they awoke four weeks ago today, went 9-10 during the rest of the regular season, making them 10-12 since Sept. 12.

POLL: Can the Nationals rally back to win?

In contrast, Washington’s foe, the St. Louis Cardinals, were just 75-68 a month ago before closing with a 13-6 flourish to grab the NL’s last wild card spot for the second straight year. Add its wild card victory over Atlanta last Friday and its strong start to this series and St. Louis is on a 16-6 roll. The Cardinals are batting .300 in the NLDS and their pitchers have a 1.67 ERA.

There’s also this: the Cardinals are the defending World Series champions. All of their regulars, save right fielder Carlos Beltran and rookie shortstop Pete Kozma, were in the lineup last October as was most of the pitching staff including today’s starter, 16-game winner Kyle Lohse.

Still with me Nats fans? Come down from the ledges. Consider all of the above facts like ripping off the band-aid in a hurry to let the healing happen faster or jumping in the chilly pool to get to the fun faster.

The Nats are not at all in a hopeless position. As right fielder Jayson Werth said, “We’ve got [Ross Detwiler] going [today] and then Gio [Gonzalez] going in Game 5. … I like our chances.”

Werth, Washington’s most experienced postseason veteran from his days in Philadelphia, isn’t crazy.

Not only were the Nats the best team in baseball this year, but they won Game 1 in St. Louis. Sure, the Cardinals’ lineup, heavy with right handed bats, led the NL with a .276 average against lefties, but Gonzalez, who led the majors with 21 wins and was ninth with a 2.89 ERA while limiting right handed hitters to a .199 average, allowed just one hit during his five-inning stint in Game 1.

And the big question isn’t whether Detwiler, 10-8, 3.40 during his first full season in the majors in 2012, can get the Nats to tomorrow and a for-all-the-marbles showdown matching Gonzalez and St. Louis’ Adam Wainwright, who struck out 10 batters in Game 1 and had the nerves of steel to record the final outs of the 2006 World Series as a closer.

No, despite all the renewed fuss over whether general manager Mike Rizzo did the right thing by shutting down Stephen Strasburg in early September to protect the ace’s recovering right arm, the fact is the Nats didn’t score yesterday. Strasburg’s stuff is far superior to that of Game 3 loser Edwin Jackson’s, but you can’t win when you don’t score.

Adam LaRoche, Bryce Harper, Michael Morse, Danny Espinosa, Kurt Suzuki and Werth are a combined 10-for-70 (.142) with two RBI. That’s manager Davey Johnson’s entire lineup other than red-hot Ian Desmond and reliable Ryan Zimmerman.

But Morse (.467, 5 RBI in 15 at-bats) and Werth (.381, three home runs in 21 at-bats) have hammered Lohse. There’s no reason they can’t have that kind of success today in the friendly confines of Nats Park.

It comes down to this Washington fans: can the Nats win two home games against a team which has a losing road record and which they’ve beaten in three of five games and outscored 27-19 on South Capitol Street this season? If not, don’t forget that 2012 has been a magical year, one that wasn’t supposed to happen until at least 2013 according to the franchise’s master plan. If the Nats have to wait until next year to win it all, or even win a playoff series, don’t despair. Good things come to those who wait, right?

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

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