Dave Nichols: A defeat emblematic of the season's struggles

The Nationals took two out of three over the weekend from the Kansas City Royals to keep their dwindling playoff hopes just barely alive. Starting play Monday, the Nats sit 8 1/2 games behind Cincinnati, with just 32 games remaining, for the last invitation to the playoff party in the National League.

The loss on Sunday halted a five-game winning streak, matching the longest the Nats have had all season long. If they're to get back in this thing, they are going to have to take advantage now of a schedule that for the next 19 games features solely the three teams that trail them in the NL East: the Phillies, Mets and Marlins. This is it - do or die trying.

Are they capable of reeling off a 15-4 stretch? Would that be enough to catch the Reds? That's kind of what we're talking about as August comes to a screeching halt. With just one more preseason game, the Redskins will be all that anyone is talking about once we hit Labor Day. Will the Nats, who were supposed to be legitimate World Series contenders, be left as an afterthought by all but the most die-hard?

Sunday's game was emblematic of the season's struggles. The Nats were behind the eight-ball early, as Dan Haren left pitches up in the zone in the first inning and the Royals clubbed two homers to take the early lead. But Haren settled down to keep the Nats in it as they chipped away, and finally tied the game.

Then, the Nats completely fell apart on defense in the bottom of the eighth inning, and all the hard work to get the game knotted was undone for want of an attention span.

First, Craig Stammen forgot to cover first base on a tough play to Adam LaRoche. The Gold Glove first baseman had a hard time with a squibbed ball from a right-handed batter, and Stammen was caught flat-footed, watching the play unfold from the mound.

After a walk (the second of the inning issued by Stammen), a soft line drive handcuffed Ian Desmond going to his right. With the bases loaded, Desmond could have made any number of risky, difficult throws to try to get an out, but decided to go the short route to third base. Only, Ryan Zimmerman was nowhere near the bag. Desmond instinctively threw to third, but Zimmerman's lunge to get the tag down fell short.

The go-ahead run scored, all hands were safe, and the run-scoring single that followed was easily predicted.

All of this came with two outs.

After the game, the parties sounded disjointed on the play, and expectations of the situation. Maybe I'm reading too much into this for the sake of a narrative, but Zimmerman and Desmond just sounded a bit off in their explanation, as the Nats have been off all season long.

"It wasn't the first place I thought he was going to throw the ball," Zimmerman told reporters.

"I don't know exactly what his thought process was," Desmond told reporters. "But it was just a mistake."

A mistake that ultimately cost the Nats a chance to sweep the Royals, ride a six-game winning streak into the week and gain another game on the Reds, who fell Sunday to Milwaukee. The Nats are out of options. They cannot waste any opportunity. In reality, that's been the situation ever since the Braves swept them at home at the beginning of the month.

Yet, games like Sunday's loss are opportunities the Nats have not been able to take advantage of all season long. For every moment of urgency, we've witnessed an equal amount of complacency.

For the players and general manager Mike Rizzo, they face a long offseason of what ifs. For outgoing manager Davey Johnson, he'll soon have all the time in the world to think about these missed opportunities.

Dave Nichols is editor-in-chief of District Sports Page and co-hosts the "Nats Nightly" Internet radio show. Read Nichols' Nationals observations 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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