by David Elfin

The exorcism that began in spring training and accelerated with the shutout of Miami in Washington’s season opener continues into its next phase tonight when St. Louis visits Nationals Park for the first time this season.

Tonight’s matchup will be the first against the Cardinals since the Nats blew a 6-0 lead in the decisive Game 5 of last October’s National League Division Series and lost 9-7 at home.

The demons of 2012 won’t be fully gone until/unless Washington advances beyond the NLDS this fall, but if the trio of games against St. Louis the next three days go well that should be a big step forward for the Nats.

Of course, little has gone well lately for Washington, which at 10-8 is far off the pace that produced a major league-best 98 victories last season. If getting swept last weekend at home by the Atlanta Braves, — who figure to be their chief rivals in the National League East — wasn’t bad enough, the Nats are coming off two losses in a three-game series to the mediocre New York Mets.

Aces Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez and previously unbeaten No. 3 starter Jordan Zimmermann were each smacked around by the lightly-regarded Mets. Washington’s defense continued to implode and its formidable offense managed just four hits this past Friday night and was shut out yesterday.

Gonzalez, third in the NL Cy Young balloting with a 21-8 record and a 2.89 earned run average in his Washington debut in 2012, has a ghastly 5.85 ERA. The left side of the infield, shortstop Ian Desmond (six) and Gold Glove-winning third baseman Ryan Zimmerman (four before going on the disabled list this past Saturday) combined for 10 errors in the first 17 games.

After not scoring in 5-2/3 innings against previously struggling Mets right hander Dillon Gee on Sunday, the Nats had just four regulars hitting as high as .258. Reigning National League Rookie of the Year Bryce Harper is off the charts at .369 with seven home runs and 14 RBI while Desmond (.290), right fielder Jayson Werth (.275) and new center fielder Denard Span (.271) are all off to respectable starts.

However, catcher Kirk Suzuki is down slightly from last year (.257 compared to 2.67), the usually stalwart Zimmerman was at .226 (compared to .282) before being shelved, Silver Slugger first baseman Adam LaRoche is batting .200 (.271) and second baseman Danny Espinosa is even worse at .170 (.247).

The bench, known last year as the “Goon Squad,” might have to switch that nickname to the “Swoon Squad” with Tyler Moore, Chad Tracy and Roger Bernadina having combined for just six hits in 55 at-bats for an abysmal collective .109 average after hitting .277 in 2012.

And while Dan Haren, who was signed during the offseason to replace fellow veteran free agent Edwin Jackson in the rotation, has been lit up like Nats Park for a night game, the most worrisome of manager Davey Johnson’s crew has to be Drew Storen.

Lights out as the closer with 43 saves and a 3.6 strikeouts to walks ratio in 2011 at 23, Storen returned from elbow surgery at midseason 2012 and settled into a role as Tyler Clippard’s setup man. But Storen infamously melted down in the ninth inning of Game 5 against the Cardinals, allowing four runs and costing the Nats the pennant.

In six and a third innings over six appearances in front of new closer Rafael Soriano this month Storen has surrendered five runs and 10 hits – including mammoth blasts by Ike Davis and Lucas Duda this past Friday night in his first outing since a blown save against Atlanta a week earlier — for a sky-high 7.11 ERA. And Storen will likely be more on the front burner against the Cardinals with Soriano on paternity leave tonight and possibly for the entire St. Louis series.

After 18 games in 2012, Washington was 14-4. Tops in the NL with a 3.33 ERA and fourth with a .261 batting average last season, the Nats have sunk to 10th with a 4.16 ERA while ranking ninth with a .244 performance at the plate. They also lead the league with 18 errors after committing 94 in 2012, the fourth-fewest.

Consequently, Washington trails Atlanta by three games, the largest margin between first and second in any of the majors’ six divisions. The Nats are also behind four other teams in the NL standings and are tied with Arizona and Pittsburgh, just a half game in front of the Mets.

Admittedly, we’re just ninth of the way through the season, but that’s hardly the stuff of champions, especially a team with a “World Series or bust” label slapped on it by its ever-confident 70-year-old skipper. Washington’s next 11 games are against the Cardinals, Braves and defending NL Central champion Cincinnati. If his team’s performance hasn’t changed for the better by the end of that grueling stretch, Johnson really might want to go looking for an exorcist. Or a shrink.

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 three Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March 2011. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin


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