Marty Niland: How will the Nats handle coming down to Earth?

There's not much a baseball team can do about games like the Nationals' 11-4 loss Thursday night to the Houston Astros.

The pitching, overpowering so far in 2012, was shelled for 17 hits, including three triples off starter Edwin Jackson in the first inning. The bullpen offered little relief, with Tom Gorzelanny surrendering six runs and eight hits of his own.

Aside from Ryan Zimmerman's first home run of the season, a three-run shot in the third inning, the offense was unproductive with men on base, stranding nine for the game. It was as bad as we've seen the team play in almost all phases.

But it's not this game, or any of the ones that preceded it, that will define the Nationals' 2012 season, but how the team can respond to a shellacking like the one they took Thursday. Rather than a collection of individual wins and losses, a baseball season is better viewed in terms of streaks and series.

So far this season, the Nationals have responded to losing their first game by dropping another one, then winning four in a row. They answered their third loss of the season with a three-game winning streak that ended Thursday. That ability to bounce back, behind strong starting pitching, is the main reason the team remains six games over .500 and in first place in the National League East. Their history shows that such resilience also can lead to long-term success.

Last season, when they surged to finish 80-81, the Nationals did not lose big often, and when they did, they often responded with a win. According to baseballreference.com, the Nats lost 15 games by five runs or more and went 7-8 in the games immediately afterward. In their inaugural season in Washington in 2005, when the Nats spent 63 days in first place before slumping to finish 81-81, they went 10-8 following their 18 blowout losses.

By contrast, in their 103-loss season in 2009, the team lost 29 games by five runs or more, but they were able to follow only nine of them with wins. The year before, when the Nats lost 102 games, they suffered 36 such blowout losses and won just nine times in response. So it would seem that by limiting the number of blowout losses, and by bouncing back to win immediately afterward, the Nats can keep themselves from destructive habits.

Games like Thursday's can be the start of confidence-sapping losing steaks, or they can be mere bumps in the road between larger runs of successive wins. It's up to the team and its collective consciousness to determine the ultimate effect. The Nats have won every series to date this season. By bouncing back from their first blowout loss, and taking the upcoming series against the Marlins, they can secure their third winning April since moving to Washington in 2005, and their first since 2010.

Marty Niland blogs about the Nationals for D.C. Baseball History. His thoughts on the Nationals will appear here 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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