Marty Niland: Three reasons not to hit the panic button

It's hard to blame Nationals fans for feeling down after last weekend's three-game sweep at the hands of the Atlanta Braves. After a big buildup to a supposed early season showdown between the top teams in the National League East - if not the entire NL - the Nats fell flat.

Almost every aspect of the game was a disappointment at some point in the series, from Ryan Zimmerman's crucial throwing errors in Friday and Saturday's losses to the bullpen on Friday to the starting pitching and offense on Sunday. To make matters worse, Wilson Ramos will miss at least the rest of the month with a hamstring injury and Danny Espinosa is day-to-day after being hit in the hand by a pitch.

For a team whose manager declared, "World Series or bust," and whose supporters are turning out in droves, this is bad news. After a taste of the postseason in 2012, Washington fans who have been perennially let down by the Redskins, Capitals, Wizards and Hoyas are long on expectations and short on patience.

But this is the wrong attitude to take with this team and this sport. Here are three reasons Nats fans should back off from the panic button:

* The length of the season: "It's not a sprint, it's a marathon" and "That's why they play 162 ..." - you've heard all the clichés, but they're true. Baseball seasons don't play out over the course of a single weekend or series. The importance of individual games and series can be sometimes by overmagnified as the season progresses, but it's a generally accepted truth that the way a team is playing in April is not nearly as important as the way it's playing in September. It's no fun to be swept by a red-hot division rival to fall four games back. But with 150 to play, including 16 more against the Braves, there's plenty of opportunity to make that up.

* The streak factor: Remember the first time the Nats and Braves played last season? After taking two of three games from Philadelphia, Washington stormed into Atlanta on Memorial Day weekend and swept three from an ailing and struggling Braves team. Then the Nats went on to Miami and got swept themselves. But by the end of the season, the Braves had won four straight against the Nats, while Washington had evened its record against Miami at 9-9. The Nats had two five-game losing streaks last season and at one point lost seven of 10 before finding their offense on a trip to Colorado that started a 9-4 run heading into the All-Star break. By the time the Nats head into Atlanta at the end of this month, things could be much different.

* Room for improvement: The San Francisco Giants were a most inconsistent team at the start of the 2012 season, flirting with .500 for the first two months of the season before falling three games under at the start of June. But they hit their stride after the All-Star break, won the NL West, came back from a 2-0 deficit to win the National League Division Series on the road and went on to win the World Series. The Braves lost their first four games and were just 26-24 at the end of May before coming back to give the Nats a serious challenge for the NL East title and capturing a wild card spot. Teams can and do improve over the course of the season. They find their chemistry by adding that hot rookie, key starter or crucial cog in the bullpen that can help them hit on all cylinders.

There are 17 teams in the major leagues that would love to have seven victories right now, including two of last year's division champs (the Reds at 5-6 and the Yankees at 6-5) and a wild card team (Baltimore at 6-6). Those teams' fans aren't hitting the panic button, and neither should Nats fans. A visit to Miami and New York could be just what the team needs to find its rhythm and winning habits.

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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