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To panic or not to panic about the Nationals

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The Washington Nationals lost again on Wednesday. It was their fourth straight loss, and their ninth in their previous 12 games. A dreadful stretch, without a doubt, in which they have rarely — if ever — played the way they’re capable or expected to.

A lineup shakeup looms Thursday evening against the Cincinnati Reds. Steve Lombardozzi will probably play third base and hit at the top of the lineup. One of the Nationals’ usual middle infielders will likely get a day to clear his mind. Jayson Werth will move out of the No. 2 spot in the lineup to a position more situated in the middle of the order. 

And then they’ll play their 22nd baseball game of the season.

As soon as the Nationals’ loss went final Wednesday afternoon, the questions came pouring in from fans. They all went a little something like this: NOW can we panic??????

The Nationals are not running from their struggles. They’re admitting that, as manager Davey Johnson put it, almost to a man they’re all trying to do too much. Trying to make the “perfect pitch,” instead of pounding the strike zone. Trying to hit a five-run homer, with a ferocious swing, instead of easing up a little and letting the game come to them.

Wednesday, when Jayson Werth returned to the dugout after hitting a solo home run in the eighth inning, and he talked with his teammates.

On the 1-1 pitch from the flamethrowing Trevor Rosenthal, Werth swung hard and fouled off a 96-mph fastball. He looked out at the field and thought “I’m swinging too hard,” and focused himself on “softening up.”

On the next pitch, a no less fearsome 97-mph fastball, Werth homered.

He mentioned that thought process to a few of his teammates, Ian Desmond included, as an immediate example of what maybe they all should do. It’s easier said than done, though.

So that brings us to Thursday, where the Nationals will greet another NL playoff contender and a team that took two of three from them just a few weeks ago in the Queen City.

And we go back to the question of panic. 

Before you head for the ledges, though, here are a few bits of information that you may want to consider:

– The 2012 World Series champion San Francisco Giants were 11-10 after 21 games. What’s more, after 38 games they were 19-19 — and at the All-Star break they were 46-40, a whopping six games over .500. The season turned out OK for them.

Guess what the 2011 World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals’ record was after 21 games. Yep, 11-10. And after 130 games? They were a meager six games over .500 — and 10 games behind the Reds in the standings. The season turned out OK for them.

There are plenty of other examples. The 2008 Phillies, which Werth mentioned on Wednesday, had an 11-10 record after 21 games. Again, the season turned out OK for them.

– It seems like a lot of the concern for the Nationals’ early-season record stems from the fact that last year — the organization’s standard-bearer for success — they opened the season 14-7. Comparing that start to this year would no doubt be disappointing, but it’s an entirely imperfect comparison. 

Even if we set aside the fact that the 2012 Nationals and the 2013 ones are very different teams, the difference in the competition they played in the first seven series of 2012 and the first seven series of 2013 is stark.

In their first seven series of 2012, the Nationals played five teams who finished well below .500 on the season (some even below .400). In their first seven series of 2013, the Nationals have played only three of those types of teams. 

Are the Nationals underperforming offensively? Yes. But their pitching (and to an extent their defense) dominated those lesser teams early last season. Against the tougher opponents early this year, they are not producing similar results.  

Here is the Nationals’ offensive slash line through the first 21 games this season: .235 AVG/.299 OBP/.402 SLG.

Here is their slash line through the first 21 games of 2012: .230 AVG/.307 OBP/.335 SLG.

In that stretch in 2012, the Nationals allowed more than three runs in a game only six times. This year they’ve allowed more than three runs in a game 11 times. 

“Three years ago, we’re sitting at 10-10 and people are kinda excited,” said Desmond. “So obviously we came out and last year we played good baseball and got a good group of guys. We have good players. We want that expectation. We played for it. We busted our butts to get it. And now, go out and play, a little time, and we’ll be right back where we were.”

So that brings us back to the question of panic — and when fans should do it.

Here’s a question in response: why? Will your panicking make the team play better? Will theirs? The answer to both is likely no. 

My suggestion instead is this: Enjoy the games. When the Nationals win celebrate it, and move on from the ones they don’t. Ride the wave a little longer than what amounts to 13 percent of the season, and see if the team’s play improves.

There’s nothing wrong with being invested in a team and wanting them to win every night. The Nationals themselves want that. But this is baseball, so they’re going to lose a lot. Happened to them 64 times in 2012. Even the 1927 Yankees lost 44 games. 

The 2013 Nationals have lost 11.

Panic if you feel you should. But, doesn’t that suck a lot of the fun out of watching to begin with?

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About the Author
Amanda Comak

Amanda Comak

Amanda Comak covers the Washington Nationals and comes to The Washington Times from the Cape Cod Times and after stints with MLB.com and the Amsterdam (N.Y.) Recorder. A Massachusetts native and 2008 graduate of Boston University, Amanda can be reached at acomak@washingtontimes.com and you can follow her on Twitter @acomak.

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