by David Elfin

When the Nats left town after taking three of five games from the lousy New York Mets and Minnesota Twins during a rain-drenched homestand last week, they seemed on the verge of finally turning around their very disappointing season.

Presumptive ace Stephen Strasburg and fellow starting pitcher Ross Detwiler were due back from the disabled list while left fielder Bryce Harper, the 2012 National League Rookie of the Year, surely wouldn’t be far behind in rejoining the ball club which was about to visit less-than-intimidating Colorado, Cleveland and Philadelphia.

Instead, when the Nats (35-36) take the field on South Capitol Street tonight for the first time in 11 days after going 4-5 against the Rockies, Indians and Phillies, they’ll find themselves seven games behind front-running Atlanta in the NL East race. Washington, which was favored by many to win the World Series, also trails Pittsburgh by six and a half games in the competition for the NL’s last card spot.

And yet, maybe the confidence Nats manager Davey “World Series or Bust” Johnson expressed on Tuesday wasn’t misplaced.

“I don’t think I’m putting too much pressure on them,” said Johnson. “I know they’ve got the talent. It’s part of experience. When you get to the top of the hill, it’s a lot of times tougher to stay there. You have to go through struggles, and that’s what they’re going through. But as a group, I think we’re going to be fine.”

Almost as if in response last night, Jayson Werth tied the game with a single with two outs in the ninth. Then, Ian Desmond – after facing an 0-2 count with the bases loaded in the 11th – smacked his first grand slam to give Washington a possibly season-changing 6-2 victory.

“At some point, it’s going to turn,” Werth said. “Hopefully this will be the turning point.”

Matching their major league-leading 98-64 record from last year would take an inconceivable 63-28 mark the rest of this season, but there’s still plenty of time to catch the Pirates, Braves et al especially with a stretch of 14 home games out of the next 17 against Colorado, Arizona, the Mets, Milwaukee and San Diego. And last night’s stunning triumph should restore some confidence after what had been such a frustrating road trip.

Washington, whose lightweight lineup couldn’t do much against former rotation mainstay John Lannan on Monday in Philadelphia, has already lost to Edwin Jackson, the inconsistent starting pitcher whom it opted to replace this offseason with the seemingly finished Dan Haren.

If center fielder Denard Span, who said he never fouled a pitch off one of his feet during his five seasons in Minnesota, wasn’t doing so twice in the span (pun intended) of five games, reliever Fernando Abad, who hadn’t allowed a run during his first 10 appearances, was surrendering the winning run in two of his next three outings.

In the second of those defeats, Washington wasted a second late-inning home run in three nights off the bat of Chad Tracy, the supreme pinch hitter of 2012 who had been awful this season.

Ian Desmond’s 15-game hitting streak which the All-Star shortstop capped with a 4-for-4 flourish last Thursday had been followed by a 2-for-21 nosedive until last night’s base-clearing blast.

To be fair, Johnson hasn’t had his expected starting eight in the lineup since April 14, but it’s not a good sign when the 70-year-old manager uses his team’s supposed youth as an excuse. After all, right fielder Werth is 34, first baseman Adam LaRoche is 33, Span and catcher Kurt Suzuki are 29, third baseman Ryan Zimmerman is 28 and Desmond is 27. That’s three quarters of the regular lineup with an average of 30. Only new second baseman Anthony Rendon, 23, and the 20-year-old Harper — when he returns — are truly young.

“We’re awfully young,” Johnson said. “A lot of guys are trying to make their marks in the big leagues, establish themselves up here. It’s part of what you go through. Last year was a very exceptional year. Some guys came up and played very well. Now … they’re just learning that other clubs … pitch to you differently, and you’ve got to make adjustments. That’s part of the second time around. It’s a situation where they have to go through the experience. [If they] learn to just play loose, free and easy, the [majors’ third-worst] offense will pick up.”

Rendon has certainly been a pick-me-up for Johnson. The sixth overall pick in the 2011 draft, Rendon is poised to join top overall selections Strasburg (2009) and Harper (2010) as true Washington gems. Called up from Class AA Harrisburg in April when Zimmerman was injured, Rendon was hitting .182 on May 1. He went 2-for-3 in his final game before being sent back down on May 3. When horribly struggling second baseman Danny Espinosa went on the disabled list, Rendon was summoned back to Washington on June 4. All the Rice product has done since is go 17-for-48 (despite a 1-for-9 performance the past two nights) with six doubles, a homer and five RBI.

So even if the Nats never return to their 2012 form and miss the playoffs, at least 2013 might be remembered in Washington as the season that Rendon began what might be a brilliant career.

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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