by David Elfin

A year ago today, the Nationals were one of baseball’s biggest surprise at 60-40 and with a four-game lead in the National League East.

This morning, the Nats are one of baseball’s biggest disappointments at 52-54 despite having won their past three games. Washington trails front-running Atlanta by a whopping eight and a half games in the division race with just 56 games remaining.

It certainly would’ve helped if the Braves hadn’t swept major league-leading St. Louis over the weekend, but really the Nats just need to worry about their own business until Atlanta comes calling for a three-game series that starts a week from today.

So what to make of these Nats, who seemed over and done with after losing their first six games after the All-Star break? Like Westley in “The Princess Bride” before being revived by Miracle Max, maybe Washington was only mostly dead.

Did Ryan Zimmerman’s walk-off homer — his first extra base hit in 48 at-bats – that won the nightcap of Friday’s doubleheader with New York save the season after the Mets had bludgeoned the Nats 11-0 in the opener? Washington did outscore the visitors by a combined 18-2 the next two days. The Nats set season highs with 14 runs and 18 hits in yesterday’s 14-1 laugher, the most decisive victory during their nine seasons in the nation’s capital.

“The talent is there,” manager Davey Johnson said. “I’ve never given up on the talent. It’s just we need to start expressing it more often.”

Before Zimmerman’s dramatic blow, the Nats had followed Bryce Harper’s game-winning blast on Thursday that prevented a four-game sweep by the Pittsburgh Pirates with the demotion of former closer Drew Storen to Class AAA Syracuse. That prompted a tirade from Storen’s buddy, former All-Star reliever Tyler Clippard, questioning the offseason acquisition of closer Rafael Soriano, who happened to have been hammered in the same inning as Harper’s heroics.

All of that drama had come after last Monday’s dismissal of hitting coach Rick Eckstein by general manager Mike Rizzo over the objections of Johnson and several of Washington’s batters.

All-Star right hander Jordan Zimmermann, Washington’s best player during the first half of the season, has done an about-face since, having surrendered a ghastly 21 runs in 26-1/3 innings over his last five starts as the neck pain that prevented him from pitching in the Midsummer Classic have apparently come home to roost.

Meanwhile, veteran right hander Dan Haren, a disaster during the first half of his first Nats season, limited the Mets to a run and three hits on Saturday for his first victory since May 9. Center fielder Denard Span, Washington’s third major offseason, homered to end a streak of 426 at-bats without clearing the fences and then went deep again yesterday in support of rookie Taylor Jordan, who earned his first big league triumph in his sixth try.

Before battling the Braves next week, Washington visits defending American League champion/AL Central leader Detroit tonight and tomorrow and then moves on to NL Central cellar-dweller Milwaukee for three games. As wacky as the Nats’ season has been, look for them to sweep the Tigers and struggle against the Brewers.

Baseball’s trade deadline is 4 p.m. Wednesday. A while back I had advocated for a deal for a proven starter to replace Haren, especially with No. 5 starter Ross Detwiler out for another month. I had also argued that Storen needed to go to the minors to try to regain his confidence. The second move has been made. I won’t complain if the first happens, but in truth, the Nats are in the predicament they’re in mostly because of their egregious hitting, particularly with runners in scoring position at least before Sunday’s incredible 9-for-12 performance in those situations.

“That’s kind of just how baseball works,” said Zimmerman, the only Nats to have been part of each of their nine seasons. “Last year was one of those years where we were so consistent and we didn’t really have too many bad times. I think a lot of people got spoiled with that and expect it to be that way every year. … It’s tough to do. The way we started the second half is obviously not the way we wanted to, but we fought back and [we’ve] got to keep going.”

Mostly with the players they have. Rizzo can’t, and shouldn’t, get rid of the entire lineup despite the down years from almost every member. Other than right fielder Jayson Werth – who hit a remarkable .411 with seven homers and 16 RBI during the past 22 games — and first baseman Adam LaRoche – who’s hitting just .235 but has 14 homers and 46 RBI– none of the regulars are older than 28.

But even if the Nats don’t catch the Braves or gain a wild card berth, they need to finish the season strong to restore confidence for 2014 and beyond that last year’s 98-64 record and NL East title wasn’t the exception to the rule that Washington baseball teams never win.

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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