Ted Leavengood: Not ready for prime time

Win six in a row, lose three in a row. Sometimes you eat the bear and sometimes the bear eats you. Such smug acceptance offers little consolation for Washington baseball fans. The six wins leading into the Yankees series only served to raise expectations. The idea was rampant going into the three-game weekend series that even the vaunted Yankees were fair game for the first-place Nationals. Only it did not turn out that way.

The enthusiastic crowds that witnessed the Yankees series had playoff size and intensity to them and the games were a good barometer of just how ready the Nationals are for the next level. For that is what the Yankees represent. Yes, Derek Jeter is 38 and Alex Rodriguez is almost 37, but there are other, younger men wearing the pinstripes, like Curtis Granderson, Robinson Cano and Nick Swisher. Their lineup is still one of the best in the game. And while their pitching was suspect for a team that always has postseason aspirations, Phil Hughes, Ivan Novoa and Andy Pettite looked like world beaters to the Nationals.

The Washington starting rotation was every bit as good as advertised. Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann and Edwin Jackson pitched extremely well, battling a tough lineup to a standstill. It should have been enough to win any of the three games. But the offense that scored more than five runs a game against both Boston and Toronto scraped together only six against the Yankees all weekend long.

The game Saturday demonstrated the grit that the Nationals will need as they picked themselves up time and again from the mat. But they could not find buy a hit or get past Russell Martin when they needed it.

There was plenty of frustration to go around, but Ryan Zimmerman was 1-for-13 for the weekend and every time there was a crucial point in the games, he seemed to be at bat. Bryce Harper struck out five times Saturday and Andy Pettite gave a primer on how to pitch to him. But the disappointment does not rest on either Harper or Zimmerman any more than anyone else. There were no heroes on any front, and had there been, there would be a win to show for it.

High expectations are an odd filter with which to view baseball. It is such a difficult game and filled with so much frustration from the outset. Yet that is where Washington fans stood on Friday: filled with undreamed of possibility and potential. Leaving the park Sunday was a whole different affair.

And it was not just the fans. It was the masters of the game who had taken notice of the Nationals’ ascendance across the board. At the beginning of the week, FanGraphs -- perhaps the best statistical analysis in the game -- had the Nationals ranked second in their power rankings. They noted that their projections were based on more than just the excellent pitching, but on the growing offensive capacity of the Nationals’ batting order.

Harper’s explosion onto the scene was a big part of it, but they specifically cited the return of Michael Morse that added luster to the FanGraph analysis. Their method involves aggregating Wins Above Replacement (WAR) value for all players on every team and ranking the results. As scientific as it sounds, I would wager that the three losses against the Yankees will be an unseen hand on the scales and that WAR in Washington will suffer a sudden drop in popularity.

It is only the middle of June, a month before the All-Star break. For all the disappointment that the three losses entail, there is a lot of baseball still to play. And who in April would have predicted that, as June began to edge toward July, the Nationals would still have a four-game lead in the National League East. The mantle of lofty expectations is still new to this team, but they are not ill-suited to them. Winning streaks are made to be broken, just as batting slumps are.

Tests of character like the Yankees served up for the Nationals over the weekend are important for growing winning teams. If the Nationals are really ready for the next level of play, for the raised expectations that were occasioned by the six-game win streak, then they will learn from these games. They will move on knowing that baseball always comes round again like a Ferris wheel. There will be other three-game series against the Yankees and regardless when and where they occur, the next time will be different.

Ted Leavengood is author of “Clark Griffith, The Old Fox of Washington Baseball,” released last June. He serves as managing editor of the popular Seamheads.com national baseball blog and co-hosts with Chip Greene the “Outta the Parkway” Internet radio show. His work appears here as part of MASNsports.com’s effort to welcome guest bloggers to our little corner of the Internet. 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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