Dave Nichols: Setting realistic goals for the second half

The Washington Nationals start play today one game below .500 at 47-48. That’s a pretty dramatic increase from seasons past and has many folks in the area, including within the organization and media members as well as fans, thinking the Nats can compete for the Wild Card this season. If Sunday’s mistake-filled loss to the Atlanta Braves wasn’t enough to sway your opinion from that, let me drop some sobering numbers on you.

First, let me preface what I’m about to say with this: I am ecstatic the Nationals are playing nearly .500 baseball. They’ve received just about best-case scenario performances from their starting pitching, most members of the bullpen and several position players all season long. And they are achieving this with their two best players mired in the worst slumps of their career. Jayson Werth’s troubles are well documented (hitting .214 after his 0-for-5 Sunday), and Ryan Zimmerman is hitting .218/.283/.355 since returning from the disabled list June 14, prompting speculation that he’s still not completely healthy.

Still, considering this franchise lost 298 games the last three years, has finished out of the National League East basement just once since relocating from Montreal in 2005 and has had three managers this season, if the Nats can finish within hailing distance of .500 this year, it will be a huge accomplishment.

But contending for the playoffs this year is simply not realistic. And no one - not fans, media or anyone in the organization - is doing the Nats a favor by talking otherwise. Washington currently is in fourth place in the NL East, a half-game behind the New York Mets for third and just one game ahead of the surging Florida Marlins in last. Having lost two of three to the Braves over the weekend, the Nats are now nine games behind the Braves for the Wild Card.

The Braves are on a pace to win 95 games with 67 games to play. Let’s say the Braves slump in the second half and finish with just 88 wins. The Nats would have to go 41-26 in their final 67 games to match the Braves’ theoretical 88 wins to force a one-game playoff. That’s a .611 winning percentage, or a 99-win pace, over the last 67 games. And that’s if no other team leapfrogs the suddenly slumping Braves.

Can we put away the notion that the Nats can contend this season? If they finish at .500, that will be an increase of 12 wins over last season, following a 10-game jump the year before. I don’t think most Nats fans realize how big a jump that is over two seasons. It’s a huge accomplishment in its own right, but somehow I get the feeling that because this team won 13 out of 15 games in the middle of June, some people will be disappointed with .500. They shouldn’t be. This club is making huge strides to improve its play on the field and their results in the standings. They’re getting there. Let’s just not put any undue pressure on them to realize unattainable goals.

Dave Nichols covers the Washington Nationals for Nats News Network. Read Nichols’ Nationals observations as 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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