The slide reaches five

For the first time in a while, the Nationals wake up this morning no longer possessing the best record in baseball. That mark now belongs to the Reds.

More importantly, however, Washington’s lead in the National League East has been cut to four games thanks to yesterday’s 9-0 shellacking at the hands of the Marlins and Atlanta’s win over the Padres.

No, it wasn’t a banner day for the Nats yesterday. They made it through the game without Michael Morse or Ian Desmond aggravating their respective injuries, but other than that, not many positives can be taken out of last night’s loss in Miami.

As I’m sure most of you are well aware, the loss was the Nationals’ fifth in a row, tying their longest losing streak of the season.

The defeats themselves are a bit concerning, given the time at which they’re coming and the fairly slim margin that the Nats are working with in the division race.

Perhaps more concerning, however, is the manner in which the losses are occurring.

We saw the same issues pop up last night, ones that have been plaguing this team for at least the last five games. In some cases, these problems have been lingering much longer than that.

The Nats were shut out for the sixth time this season, and they’ve now scored six runs over this five-game losing streak. They managed just five hits off Marlins righty Ricky Nolasco, who entered the game with a 5.07 ERA.

You can’t go with the “We got beat by a great pitcher” excuse when the guy you’re facing took the mound with an ERA more than a run higher than every hurler on the Nationals’ roster. Nolasco pitched well, but the Nats offered minimal resistance as he mowed them down.

Excluding catcher Kurt Suzuki, the seven other position players in the starting lineup combined to go 2-for-26.

Stephen Strasburg, meanwhile, had a rare August blip after four fantastic outings earlier in the month. That’s certainly excusable. But the flame-throwing righty allowed two more stolen bases last night (he’s now allowed 14 in 16 attempts this season), stolen bases which manager Davey Johnson felt rattled him.

johnson d glasses sidebar.jpgYou’ll notice I didn’t say, “the flame-throwing righty and Suzuki allowed two more stolen bases last night,” because in my mind - and I’m sure in the minds of Johnson and pitching coach Steve McCatty - Suzuki bares no responsibility for what happened on the basepaths last night.

The Nationals’ catcher had absolutely no chance when Bryan Peterson swiped second in the third inning, and I honestly felt bad for Suzuki when Carlos Lee stole second without needing to slide later in the frame. When a 270-pound man (and, boy, that’s quite a generous listed weight for Lee) can steal a base off you with ease, you know your team has serious problems holding runners.

For much of the season, Strasburg has had a tendency to completely ignore baserunners. He’s so focused on what’s going on at the plate that he forgets to mix in pick-off throws, vary his time to the plate or in any way alter his routine once he steps on the rubber. It’s a problem Strasburg admits he must address, but he’s far from the only pitcher on the staff making these mistakes.

The mistakes have been mounting of late. The starting pitching has dropped off a bit this turn through the rotation. The bullpen hasn’t been nearly as effective this last week as it had been for much of the season. The offense, which looked like one of the most potent in baseball a couple weeks ago, has dropped off significantly.

As I wrote the other day, these down stretches will happen in the course of a 162-game season. But they can’t be allowed to linger. The Nationals’ players are still plenty confident now, and they have a right to be. But if a couple more losses follow, a little doubt might start to creep into the clubhouse, and that’s the last thing you want during a playoff race.

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