Dave Nichols: Losses make big picture tougher to see

The Washington Nationals are struggling. Like, really struggling. After Monday's 5-4 loss to the Philadelphia Phillies, they have lost their last three games - all by one run. They have lost eight of their last nine, 10 of 12 and 13 of 17. The Nats are losing close games (5-12 in one-run games in 2011) and blowouts (1-6 when the game is decided by five or more runs). After 53 games, nearly a third of the season, they are 22-31, a .415 winning percentage. Over a 162-game schedule, that works out to 67 wins. That's pretty dismal.

Of course, the Nationals have been without Ryan Zimmerman, except for eight games, Adam LaRoche played with one arm for six weeks and is now on the disabled list for the foreseeable future, and the most important player on the team, Stephen Strasburg, is just now starting to throw as he rehabilitates from Tommy John surgery.

In addition, the Nats have played the fewest home games of any team in the National League and have played one of the toughest schedules so far. The conditions have been perfect for this type of performance. But it doesn't get any easier. The Nats have two more games with the Phillies this week at home, then embark on an 11-game road trip to Arizona, San Francisco and San Diego. It's enough to make even the most hardened veteran cringe.

But if you ask the management, coaching staff or players, they'll tell you all of that is excuse-making; that they are a better team than what they've shown. After a loss in Milwaukee last week, first baseman Michael Morse said, "We're better than this, and we know it. It's tough. The talent we've got, it's frustrating right now."

In fact, manager Jim Riggleman was almost defiant on MASN's postgame broadcast the other night when asked about the talent assembled for this team: "This is our ball club. This is what we put together. This is what we have confidence in, and we've got to turn it around."

Riggleman keeps mentioning how his players give him great effort and how well-prepared they are to do their job. In his postgame comments Sunday he referred to the chances his club had in that particular ballgame (a one-run loss to the Padres), but he might as well have been speaking about the last 17 games.

"I like the opportunities out there, and we had our opportunities," Riggleman said. "As we've said many times, if we keep putting them out there, sooner or later you're gotta drive 'em in. But it's tough, this little stretch we're going through here, and there's nothing to do but battle through it and get to the point where we do drive those runs in."

At some point, though, it comes down to performance. The Nats are league average at converting base runners into runs, but are next to last in getting runners on base. It's not how they hit with runners on base, it's how many runners they have in the first place. The failure is magnified because every time they get a runner on, it's imperative they score that run.

Riggleman's right. This is their ball club. This is what they put together. And there aren't any reinforcements coming. They are the only ones that can turn it around.

I had a friend suggest to me that we shouldn't dwell on the wins and losses this season, but concentrate more on the development of the younger players like Ian Desmond, Danny Espinosa and Wilson Ramos, and the prospects in the minor leagues like Bryce Harper, Derek Norris, Brad Peacock, Brad Meyers and Chris Marrero. I think that's probably the right way to go, but that's a difficult thing to sell to the season ticket holders and fans that are paying to see this year's team.

Dave Nichols covers the Nationals for Nats News Network. Read Nichols' Nationals observations part of MASNsports.com's season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our site. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.

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