Stephen Walker: For Nationals, storm clouds obscure rainbows

Earlier, in this space, I encouraged Nationals fans to enjoy the first season of rainbows in Washington since 1969. Well, after this past weekend's gruesome three-game sweep at the hands of the Atlanta Braves, storm clouds have appeared on the horizon.

The Nationals still hold baseball's best record, and their lead in the National League East over the Braves is at five games after Atlanta's 7-5 win over the Miami Marlins. As Nationals first baseman Adam LaRoche recently said, "Any day you wake up in first place is a good day."

On Sunday afternoon, the Philadelphia Phillies lost to the Houston Astros, mathematically eliminating them from the division race, though they are still very much alive in the race for a wild card berth. Washington's magic number to clinch a playoff spot is down to three since the Dodgers, beginning a three-game series with the Nationals tonight, weather permitting, lost on Sunday to the St. Louis Cardinals.

Nevertheless, a number of emerging concerns, especially in the Nats' recent series against division foes (4-8 in 12 games, including being swept by Philadelphia and Atlanta), portend tough days ahead, and, if not soon corrected, a blown division lead and an early exit from the postseason.

Concern No. 1: A faltering pitching staff:

Lately, the Nationals' pitchers have shown signs of wear. In his past two starts, Gio Gonzalez has returned to his pre-2012 wildness, issuing walks galore. Edwin Jackson is a model of inconsistency, brilliant one inning, wretched the next. Jordan Zimmermann, be it one run or seven, always seems to allow one more run than his teammates score.

Regular bullpen meltdowns have occurred as Nationals relievers walk and hit batters at an alarming rate. Sean Burnett, who still seems affected by a sore elbow, and Ryan Mattheus, who just seems nervous, performed poorly in Atlanta, transforming close contests into gut-wrenching losses.

Given their season-long league-best performance, the Washington pitching staff is capable of dominating a series. Recently, however, the staff looks confused and out of synch.

Concern No. 2: A one-dimensional, strikeout-prone offense:

In the Atlanta series, Nationals hitters struck out 35 times of the 84 outs made. The 42 percent K-rate means runners in scoring position don't score and rallies don't happen. In earlier games against the Miami Marlins and New York Mets, Washington failed, on multiple occasions, to score despite having the bases loaded with no outs or one out or runners on second and third with no outs.

Since the All-Star break, the Nationals have blasted home runs at a NL-leading pace. The shots LaRoche, Ryan Zimmerman, Ian Desmond and Bryce Harper hit are exciting. Unfortunately, the club struggles to score runs any other way. With every game remaining against a playoff contender, the Nationals will see the best of each team's pitching staff. As the talent they face improves, the weather cools and the pressure rises, home runs will become more scarce.

Often, teams in September pennant races and the postseason win through timely hitting and manufacturing runs by putting balls in play. Swinging from the heels for roundtrippers every time only leads to strikeouts in the box score, zeroes on the scoreboard and painful defeats on the diamond.

Concern No. 3: A brutal season-ending schedule:

With 19 tough games standing between them and the postseason, the Nationals stumbled badly in their first three. They played nervously, making numerous poor throws and swinging at the first toss from pitchers they had never faced.

Now, the Nationals must play, in order, the Dodgers (three games) and Brewers (four) in D.C., the Phillies (three) and Cardinals (three) on the road, and Philly (three) again at home to close the regular season. Every team has potent lineups, strong pitching and a shot at the division title or second wild card spot. With few exceptions, much like the Braves last season, this Nationals team has never played games with so much on the line. The experience will steel them for future fights in 2013 and beyond, but it may cost them a division title in 2012.

Concern No. 4: Untimely injuries:

The shutdown of Stephen Strasburg is an unfortunate, but a necessary part of his recovery from his awful 2010 injury. However, it is also analogous to a contending team losing its top pitcher for the season due to arm trouble.

Worse, after finally getting everyone but Wilson Ramos healthy, the injuries are mounting again. If performance is an indicator, Burnett's left arm still bothers him. Michael Morse created a new injury in his left wrist by favoring a sore right hand. While he seems likely to play again soon, he delayed his recovery from a spring injury by trying to do too much too soon.

Now, Danny Espinosa, a wunderkind in the field and a power-hitting strikeout machine at bat, has a sore left shoulder. While the team and its fans await the result of an MRI exam, it is possible the Nationals' fine, young second baseman could be lost for the season. While the Nationals have a deep bench, trying to beat the best teams in the NL with four key players down is a herculean task.

If you squint hard enough, you can still see those rainbows - 89 wins, first place, best record in baseball - but the Braves swept in some storm clouds that look poised to ruin a storybook season in its final 16 games.

Stephen Walker blogs about the Nationals at District on Deck and is the author of "A Whole New Ballgame: The 1969 Washington Senators" (Pocol Press, 2009). 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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