The Washington Nationals won 98 games during the 2012 regular season. They added a few new pieces and went into 2013 with designs on doing even more.
They'd have to go 40-4 in the closing weeks to match last year's total. Getting back to the playoffs is a massive long-shot. The season will qualify as a disappointment and, human nature being what it is, a couple of the team's new faces have had some "is it me?" moments.
Center fielder Denard Span was brought in to provide quality defense, which he has done, and spearhead the offense at the top of the lineup, which he has not done. Starting pitcher Dan Haren, a three-time All-Star, was brought in to provide a veteran presence to a strong, young rotation. He's been very good lately. He was the opposite of that early.
Is it them?
"[General manager] Mike Rizzo brought us in to do better than what they'd done last year and we haven't as a team done that," Span said. "I've had some discussion about that with Dan. I take responsibility for not playing as well as I can play and I think Dan has done the same thing. It's just not a good feeling coming into a new team and you want to impress, and just not being able to do what you know what you're capable of doing."
Added Haren, "Definitely, we feel very responsible for the way the year has gone. We definitely feel bad about it, especially with where the team came from last year. Obviously, we're probably just a part of the blame, but we really haven't played up to our capabilities."
Haren, 32, has recovered from an awful start to give himself a chance to keep alive an impressive streak. He's won at least 12 games in all eight of his previous full seasons in the majors. He'll take a 7-11 record into Thursday's start against San Francisco, so he has some work to do but at least it is a possibility. A month ago, it seemed unlikely.
Haren went on the disabled list in late June, lugging around a 4-9 record and a 6.15 earned run average.
"I wasn't really hurt," Haren said. "Everyone is kind of banged up as the season goes on. It was more of a mental thing. It just kind of allowed me to step back, because things were obviously spiraling out of control."
Since his return, he's been the old Dan Haren. He's had one bad start in the six he's made. In the other five, he hasn't allowed more than two earned runs (and none in two of them). He's brought his ERA under 5.
"I said after the last game, baseball is the ultimate humbling sport," Haren said. "I was on top of the world year after year. I went from being one of the more quality pitchers in the big leagues to being one of the worst through the first three months of the season. It definitely knocked me down to a place I'd never been in terms of baseball. I'm proud that I got back up. I stuck it out and I'm reaping the benefits."
Span, 29, has a career on-base percentage of .350 and he's at .315 this season. His first two seasons with the Twins, he was at .387 and .392. Manager Davey Johnson has sometimes dropped him to seventh in the order lately.
He had six hits in the four games previous to Wednesday's, after going hitless in the five before that. It's been that kind of year on offense for Span.
"You try not to put pressure on yourself, even though I know that's easier said than done," Span said. "I think the both of us have probably put more pressure on ourselves than we probably should have.
"It's still a work in progress. I've been doing a lot of work with our new hitting coach, Rick Schu. I definitely feel a lot better than I did a few months ago. We still have some baseball left so hopefully myself and Dan can still help this team. We're both good players."
Haren sounds almost wistful talking about the future. He was signed to a one-year, $13 million deal and doesn't think he'll be back. He's open to the idea of a return and knows he can strengthen his case by being more of the second-half Haren and much less of the first-half Haren.
"I've really enjoyed my time here," he said. "It's been fun taking in the city, just walking around D.C., living right on the Potomac River, trying to take it all in."
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