- The Washington Times - Friday, September 2, 2011

Five months and 136 baseball games have passed for the Nationals this season. Before they play Game No. 137, they’ll find themselves 10 games under .500 for the first time all year — a low-water mark for a team that’s found progress to be its optimal word in 2011.

They’ve made progress, to be sure.

They’ve watched the emergence of Michael Morse into a bona fide cleanup hitter, of Jordan Zimmermann into a front-line starter, of a youthful, slick-fielding infield around the horn and a host of other bright spots to light their way through each loss. There’s progress on the individual level — growth in the young hitters and maturation in the pitchers — as they push toward a common goal focused on next year and the ones that follow than it is on the here and now.

The positive phrases are uttered daily, without relent: “We’re going in the right direction;” “We have a good group of guys;” “We play the game the right way;” “The talent is here.”

And yet as a team that has lost nine of its last 10 games, their latest a 7-3 setback to the New York Mets that saw starter Ross Detwiler turn in his self-described worst performance of the season, there’s no way to know just how far their record could tumble in the season’s final weeks.

“All I can remember was one pitch that was actually good,” Detwiler said of his three-inning, six-earned run night. “It’s not arguably my worst outing, it’s definitely my worst. Nothing worked. They hit everything I threw up there hard.”

It was the truth, in a game far out of reach before the Nationals could mount anything behind Rick Ankiel (2-for-4, two-run homer), Ian Desmond (2-for-5) and Wilson Ramos (2-for-4). After watching their offense waste multiple quality starts on a 1-5 road trip, the Nationals found a new road to defeat Friday night.

It only served to exacerbate the larger point: with so much progress to look back on and be proud of for an organization that has never once had a winning season, they would do well to avoid a September free-fall that could help to undo at least part of what they’ve done.

“I think we’ve taken a step forward already,” said third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, the only man in the clubhouse who can speak with the historical perspective that encompasses the team’s entire stay in Washington.

“Nobody likes losing. We feel like we have a talented team right now and we can beat any team any night that we go out there and play. We’re disappointed every time we lose. But we need to make sure we learn from our mistakes and not continue to let it happen and we mature from it.

“We don’t want to scuffle all of September. But we’ve done a lot of things better this year than we’ve done the last couple of years. To finish strong would be some icing on the cake.”

They’ll have to reverse a trend they’ve set over the last two weeks, since the hangover from their walk-off weekend against Philadelphia began to wear off and they dropped three straight series. They’ll have to integrate ace Stephen Strasburg, the young talent from the minor leagues in Saturday’s starter Tom Milone and right-hander Brad Peacock — along with the host of others expected to arrive in the coming days and weeks — and try to find their right combination for the future, while bettering their current play.

They’ll have to do better than 30 hits and 10 RBI from their pinch hitters on the season, both the worst marks in the National League. They’ll have to hope to improve their collective .309 on-base percentage. And they’ll have to better a .223 batting average with runners in scoring position, second worst in the NL.

“We haven’t hit like I know we’re capable of hitting,” said Nationals manager Davey Johnson. “If you look at the production, on-base, guys in scoring position, we’re not good. If you look at the bench production, we’re not good. Do I think the approach is getting better? Yes. The results aren’t there yet. Nine out of 10 we haven’t been good.

“The way we’ve played all year long has been admirable. But it’s the approach and how we go from here on.”

Long after most of the 27,907 in attendance had vacated Nationals Park Friday night, Johnson was left with one truth: Unless the Nationals play at roughly a .750 clip for the rest of the year, he’ll finish with his first-ever losing record as a major league manager.

“Nobody hates to lose worse than me,” he said. “I probably take it harder than anyone. I tell the players, ‘Managers take the losses, you guys take the wins.’ I’m not happy with it — but I am happy with what I’ve seen in the approach and the attitude. I do like the direction we’re going in.”

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