- The Washington Times - Monday, June 8, 2015

Here they are again, the heavily-favored Washington Nationals, middling through June as fans and pundits shake their heads. Several star players are injured. The offense is streaky. The bullpen has question marks. It’s a situation they’ve come to know all too well.

“Not to say that these games are do or die,” shortstop Ian Desmond said Sunday, after Washington’s eighth loss in 10 games, “but we’ve got to start playing a little better.”

The Nationals, to a man, understand this. They see the inconsistencies in their daily performances, the streakiness that’s turned a preseason World Series favorite into a 30-27 team with two-thirds of the season remaining. Yet they also remember that they’ve been in this situation before, and that is why there is little worry in their clubhouse.

“Am I concerned? No, I’m not concerned,” manager Matt Williams said. “It’s the same team that was really good in May. It’s been a little rough for us recently, but there’s no reason that we can’t pull out of that, too. It’s the same team that was rough in April. It’s the way the game goes sometimes. That being said, I’m not worried.”

Few other teams have experienced the highs and lows that Washington has seen in the first two months of the season. The Nationals lost six of their first eight games and 13 of their first 20, falling into sole possession of last place in the National League East by April 27. Then, Dan Uggla hit a go-ahead three-run home run in the ninth inning of a win in Atlanta, and the metaphorical switch was flipped. The Nationals won 21 of their next 27 games.

Now, they find themselves in another slump, their worst 10-game stretch of the year. After being swept in Cincinnati, the Nationals completed a 2-5 homestand with a 6-3 loss to the Chicago Cubs on Sunday. Since winning nine consecutive series, they’ve now lost three in a row.

“I don’t know, man. We’ve been streaky,” center fielder Denard Span said. “Obviously this year, we’re just going through a rough patch. Can’t get anything going offensively. A lot of it’s I think we’re banged up as well. We’ve got a lot of guys giving it their all. We’ve just got to try to weather the storm, really, stay in the thick of things until everybody gets full strength I guess.”

Though Anthony Rendon rejoined the team Thursday, Washington has yet to play a game with its entire everyday lineup intact. That moment will not come until at least August, when left fielder Jayson Werth’s injured left wrist is expected to be fully healed. The Nationals have also played through long stretches without one key pitcher or another, be it Stephen Strasburg and Doug Fister, who are currently on the disabled list, or Casey Janssen, who missed the first 41 games of the year.

Those injuries have certainly slowed the Nationals, but the team refuses to use them as excuses.

“We’ve said that the last few years. That’s kind of been our crutch,” Desmond said. “The team that we run out there today needs to be ready to win the game. And the team that we run out there in August needs to be ready to win the game. We love those guys and we can’t wait for them to get back, but you kind of almost have to forget about them and realize that the 25 guys that we have active right now are what we have. And we believe that that team is good enough to beat anybody.”

Recent history gives the Nationals comfort. Two years ago to the day, they were 31-31, seven-and-a-half games behind the Atlanta Braves in the NL East. They went on to miss the playoffs. On this date last year, they were 33-29, tied with the Braves atop the division. And they went on to win it by 17 games.

With two-thirds of the season remaining, much is still undetermined.

“We can go back to last year,” Williams said. “There are no excuses to be made, but April wasn’t kind to us in regard to injury. It was a little bit of a struggle early on. When we got everybody back, it started to roll for us pretty good. That being said, there are no excuses, period. We’ve got to play and win games and get to where we want to get to.”

Williams hopes that improvement will begin at Yankee Stadium, where the Nationals will begin a two-game series Tuesday. Six more games in Milwaukee and Tampa Bay will follow. A winning road trip would give them confidence when they return home June 17, possibly with Fister and Strasburg back in the rotation, and a beleaguered team that much closer to becoming whole.

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