PHILADELPHIA — Early Tuesday afternoon, as rain pounded on the field at Citizens Bank Park and the Washington Nationals waited out an hour-long delay keeping them from their latest loss, a few players chatted about the issues looming over their team.
They were hours from a 4-2 loss to the Philadelphia Phillies, their fourth in the last five games and one that dropped them two games below the .500 mark they’ve hovered around so often this season.
Shortstop Ian Desmond had already addressed the idea with manager Davey Johnson that he felt the team was playing too tight. That, for whatever reason, the looseness that pervaded their dugout over the course of their 98-win 2012 season, was missing. Johnson attributed it to youth, and struggle.
Desmond took the discussion to Jayson Werth, too.
For all of their issues — the Nationals own an unbelievably low .291 on-base percentage, rank among the major league’s worst in almost every offensive category, are missing their catcher and their otherworldly left fielder, and hardly support their usually strong starting pitching staff — they talked about something less tangible.
They talked about identity. Namely, that they didn’t have one.
“We’re trying to force the things on ourselves that we did last year instead of going out and playing the game that we know how to play this year,” said Desmond. “We’re not giving ourselves a chance to become the 2013 Nats. We’re playing as 2012. We’ve got to give ourselves a little bit of time to breathe and start new.
“We’re searching for the secret. We’re waiting for Superman. But we have a good enough team. We have a very good team, with the pieces we have right now. We’re totally capable of winning. We just have to do it.”
The question, of course, is what comes first.
Does a team establish its identity, and then they’re free to play the way they’re capable so winning comes more naturally? Or does the identity form simply through the wins. Teams that win always talk about good chemistry, but it’s almost always a product of their success. Winning cures so many ills.
“I think as you start winning games and you start playing and you go on a roll or you rally or whatever it is you do, you kind of create an identity,” Werth said. “We just haven’t hit stride as far as that goes. How many times have we rallied this year? How many winning streaks have we gone on? We just haven’t hit stride yet. Hopefully soon.
“There’s a lot of season left. We just need to keep battling. If we can stay around or above .500 going into the break, the second half’s crazy. But we’ve got to stay close.”
As the Nationals’ season trudged on Tuesday night, their fate was decided on a 2-0 sinker from Ross Detwiler that stayed up to Kevin Frandsen and shot on a sinking line toward Steve Lombardozzi, the second baseman playing left field in Bryce Harper’s stead.
It was decided in one inning in which the Phillies broke a 1-1 tie and scored three runs, plenty more output than the Nationals’ beleaguered offense — which came only from solo home runs by Jayson Werth and Jeff Kobernus on this night — could match.
“We had the momentum there for maybe five minutes,” Detwiler said. “And I gave it right back.”
Their frustration began to become evident on the field as the game wore on, their few opportunities against Cliff Lee having gone mostly for naught. Desmond vehemently argued a called third strike in the seventh inning. Ryan Zimmerman chucked his bat to the ground after popping out in the top of the ninth. They walked slowly back to the clubhouse after Jonathan Papelbon sealed his 14th save of the season.
Even Kobernus, whose eighth-inning home run was the first of his career, seemed to take little enjoyment in the feat given the game’s outcome. It was the 63nd home run the Nationals have hit this season — and the 39th that came with no one else on base.
“When we get some guys on base, we get a little passive for some reason,” said manager Davey Johnson.
The task, then, is to find the way to get on the streak that has eluded them; To play well enough to do that. The personnel can change a little, when Harper and Wilson Ramos return healthy, but the crux of the team is already here.
Johnson is fond of ending his press conferences after a loss by reminding everyone that “tomorrow is another day.” At this point, it’s fair to wonder how many more will come before the Nationals find themselves.
“People that drown in it and people that take it home and allow it to eat at them and all that don’t usually last too long,” Werth said.
“They don’t stick around. That’s all part of being a big-leaguer. You’ve just got to do it. You’ve got to show up tomorrow ready to eat somebody’s face.”