With seven weeks remaining in the regular season, the Washington Nationals find themselves in third place in the NL East. They are six games out of second place behind the Phillies and seven games behind the Braves for first. They are only one game above .500 with a 60-59 record, and are six games out of a wild card spot. We’ve been waiting all season for the Nats to finally take off and surge back into first, but is it time to consider that the Nationals might miss the playoffs in what may be Bryce Harper’s last year in Washington?
Washington has made the postseason four times in the last seven seasons, but they have been unable to make it past the National League Division Series each time. Many baseball experts believe that this is the last year that the Nationals’ “window” to win a World Series, especially since it is likely that Bryce Harper will not re-sign with the Nationals this coming offseason. In fact, many experts were predicting that the Nats would win it all this year.
So what’s going wrong for Washington? The answer: a lot.
The Nationals suffered a five-game losing streak right out of the gate, losing two straight to the Braves and then getting swept by the Mets. By April 8, they were already three-and-a-half games out of first place, and they wouldn’t be closer than three games out for the next four weeks. No team should be concerned by a losing streak in the beginning of April, but this stretch would be a sign of things to come for the Nats, with good pitching performances often spoiled by a sloppy defense which lead to unearned runs.
To make matters worse, Washington has been plagued by injuries to some of their key players. Stephen Strasburg hit the disabled list on June 9 with shoulder inflammation, and would miss more than a month. During that time, Washington’s rotation, save Max Scherzer, imploded. Bad starts by guys such as Gio Gonzalez and Jeremy Hellickson would contribute to their team ERA rising to 5.37. In his return from the DL, Strasburg lasted 4 2/3 innings, allowing six runs on eight hits. He’d return to the DL almost immediately with a nerve problem in his neck, and is currently expected to return at the end of August.
Strasburg is not the only key piece to be sent to the disabled list. Closer Sean Doolittle was sidelined on July 22 with a toe inflammation and will be out for “multiple weeks.” Kelvin Herrera would fill in as closer until he too was sent to the disabled list on August 9 with a rotator cuff issue. In May, Howie Kendrick had to have season-ending surgery on his Achilles tendon. Adam Eaton spent nearly two months on the DL after injuring his ankle on a slide in early April. Daniel Murphy missed the first sixty-three games of the season while recovering from knee surgery in late October. And Anthony Rendon has made multiple trips to the disabled list for multiple injuries.
Luckily for the Nationals, Bryce Harper has made it this far without a trip to the DL, although he has been dealing with plenty of his own issues.
Harper got off to a hot start in April, posting a .986 OPS, but by June that had dropped all the way to a .675. He’s batting just .236 on the year. He holds a pitiful 1.1 WAR. Pretty much the whole season has been bad, but his worst stretch came in the middle of June, when he went 7-for-55 over fifteen games. To give him credit, he’s heated up a little since the All-Star Break. He’s up to twenty-nine home runs and seventy-five RBI. However, his long slump had already done damage to the Nationals, and quite possibly to his future contract value.
If the Nationals are going to make the playoffs, things need to start going better, like, now. In the division race, they would need to not just catch up to the Phillies and Braves, but surpass them and be able to hold the lead. To get in via the second wild card spot, they would need to overtake five teams, and then win the wild card game to stay alive. If any of those things are to happen, their offense- specifically Bryce Harper- needs to catch fire and not look back; their defense needs to stop allowing runs, and the Pirates, Dodgers, Rockies, Cardinals, and Brewers all need to play terribly.
Which is probably why the Nationals playoff odds are sitting at 36%, according to FanGraphs.
But don’t forget, Nats fans, that the beauty in baseball is the unpredictability. It’s possible. Not very likely, but possible.