Marty Niland: A lesson to be found in losing streaks

It's been one interesting week since my prediction that the Nationals would make the playoffs with the best record in baseball. It didn't seem so bold at the time, given their 6 1/2-game lead over Atlanta in the National League East and their two-game lead over Cincinnati for the major leagues' best mark.

It's amazing, though, how a losing streak can rock some people's faith. Five days later, it seemed I was talking some people down from the ledge. The terms "choking" and "cracking under pressure" were showing up in discussion groups. Someone even half-jokingly challenged me to write a retraction.

I'll admit that after a watching the Nats take two of three from the Braves, few people could foresee that 5-1 loss at the end of the series growing into a five-game skid. Or that a potent offense would be held to just eight runs in 40 innings. Or that Stephen Strasburg would be rocked for seven earned runs by a last-place club.

But I also challenge anyone to tell me that they could made the following predictions, even when the Nats were flying high just a couple weeks ago: That Bryce Harper's bat, slumping to a sub-.250 average, would snap the team out of its next offensive slump. Or that Ross Detwiler, whose ERA jumped from 2.99 to 3.25 in two weeks, and Edwin Jackson, with one prior win in August, would become the stoppers of the rotation. Or, most importantly, that even after that five-game losing streak had ended, the division lead would still be five games.

Predictions are half the fun of baseball - starting the season with optimistic hopes for your team and seeing how it all plays out. It's fun to dream on opening day of Strasburg dominating the league or an injury-riddled division rival like the Phillies struggling throughout the year. Then the dreams get bigger when those things start to happen, and the disappointments can seem more bitter when they don't play out as hoped.

It's easy for fans who have suffered through losing seasons, and even a long drought without any baseball at all, to get caught in the ebbs and flows of the season. Losing streaks will happen. But the lesson, for players and fans alike, is in how they respond to such a streak. They can act as if the sky is falling, or they can shrug it off and get back to business.

The Nats are a good team. They would not have gotten to this point without being one. And the character trait that has helped them more than anything else is their resilience. Unexpected heroes like Roger Bernadina, Steve Lombardozzi and Chad Tracy have stepped forward when stars like Ryan Zimmerman, Jayson Werth and Michael Morse have been hurt. And guys like Harper, Detwiler and Jackson are stepping it up when the rest of the team is scuffling.

There are 32 games left in the season - a little more than a month. There may be another losing steak to come, but that's no reason to give up hope. The Nats need to win just three more games to have a winning season, something D.C. baseball fans have not seen since 1969. But we've come to expect more than that this season. So let's stop and give thanks when they hit that milestone, and then keep looking forward to bigger and better things.

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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