by David Elfin

OK, now that Stephen couldn’t get it done yet again, Gio and Jordan, getting the Nats’ season back on track is up to you once (twice?) again.

It was just five days ago that 2012 Cy Young finalist Gonzalez seemingly recovered his form by one-hitting defending NL Central champion Cincinnati over eight innings, a performance that Zimmermann (4-1, 2.00 earned run average) trumped the next night with a complete game one-hitter against the Reds. Those superb starts immediately followed Washington falling under .500 for the first time since the end of the 2011 season after being swept out of its own ballpark by NLDS conqueror St. Louis.

While the Nats (13-13) will be back under .500 with another defeat in Atlanta tonight, the bigger concern would be that it would make it five consecutive losses to the Braves, who figure to be the main obstacle between Washington and a second straight NL East title.

While those with curly W-themed glasses look back on 2012 as a magical season when the Nats cavorted to the division crown, reality says that Washington had to win a major league-high 98 games to beat out Atlanta by four. Only the Nats, Reds and New York Yankees won more games than the Braves, whose 94 victories matched the total of the eventual World Series-winning San Francisco Giants.

Atlanta lost likely Hall of Fame third baseman Chipper Jones to retirement, but 2012 midseason wunderkind Kris Medlen is now a mainstay of its rotation and the Upton brothers, B.J. and Jason, are outfield upgrades over Martin Prado and Michael Bourn. Add a solid rotation, the power of Jason Heyward, Freddie Freeman and the currently injured Brian McCann, as well as flame-throwing closer Craig Kimbrel, and the Braves are a bonafide World Series contender.

If Gonzalez or the red-hot Zimmermann doesn’t put an end to Atlanta’s 2013 dominance of Washington, Nats manager Davey Johnson will have to pray that last Saturday’s quality start by Dan Haren (6.29 ERA) was the beginning of a turnaround that will continue on Thursday.

Johnson surely isn’t the only one around here praying that the tightness in Stephen Strasburg’s right forearm that occurred during last night’s 3-2 loss was temporary and not a harbinger for an All-Star right hander who missed a year after Tommy John surgery and was scratched from the 2012 postseason for precautionary reasons.

“I’m not missing my next start,” Strasburg declared after he allowed two runs and six hits over six innings.

Although Strasburg and Gonzalez haven’t been up to their standards of last year thus far and the bullpen has had more clunkers than classics, what really has been missing for the Nats is an offense other 20-year-old phenom Bryce Harper (.356, nine home runs, 18 RBI).

Adam LaRoche’s single last night raised the 2012 Silver Slugger first baseman’s average to .143. Second baseman Danny Espinosa is at .182. At third base, where former face of the franchise Ryan Zimmerman (.226) is due to be activated on Friday, Johnson has had a choice of veteran Chad Tracy (.185) or rookie Anthony Rendon (.200). That weak-hitting infield — save All-Star shortstop Ian Desmond (.303) – has made Kurt Suzuki (.241) look like a Sultan of Swat prior to tonight’s return from the disabled list of fellow catcher Wilson Ramos (.300). And one of Washington’s leading hitters, right fielder Jayson Werth (.265), is expected to miss a couple of days to rest the groin he injured last night.

The Nats were 2-for-9 with runners in scoring position last night, a day after they went 1-for-7 in those situations against Cincinnati’s baffling left hander Tony Cingrani and four relievers.

One game shy of a sixth of the way through the season, the Nats are 11th in the NL with a .239 batting average and 95 runs (compared to fourth in 2012 with a .261 average and 731 runs), seventh with a 3.62 ERA (first at 3.33) and last with 23 errors (fourth with 94).

Of course, coming back from a slow start to win a division title can be done. The Redskins zoomed from 3-6 to 10-6 and the NFC East crown while the Caps just won another Southeast championship with a 25-10-2 stretch of sustained excellence that followed a 2-8-1 beginning.

However, with 16 of their next 21 games on the road against such quality foes as the Braves, Giants, the blazing Pittsburgh Pirates and the mega-talented Los Angeles Dodgers, the Nats would certainly like to stop the bleeding now.

If they win behind Gonzalez, Zimmermann and Haren the next three nights, they’ll pull within a half game of the Braves. But if the reverse happens and Washington falls to 0-7 against Atlanta, the gap between the NL East rivals will widen to six and a half games.

The teams meet again from May 31-June 2 at Braves Field, but then not again until August. So it would behoove the Nats to put some doubt in the NL-leading Braves’ minds right now rather than have this rivalry begin to resemble the Yankees-Red Sox battles where for decades Boston always expected the worst to happen and New York knew it would always come on top.

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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