Reality starting to set in

For months now, Nationals players, coaches and front office personnel have countered questions about the team's continued struggles by saying that they have a talented roster and that there was plenty of time left for things to turn and for talent to show through.

Well, there's no longer plenty of time left for things to turn. And so far, the talent still hasn't shown through.

The Nats have played 114 games, more than 70 percent of their schedule. They've reached their season's low point at six games under .500, have won just six of 19 games since the All-Star break and own a run differential of minus-39 for the season.

They went into this week's series with the Braves still holding out hope that a strong showing against the team they were staring up at in the division could vault them back into the mix in the NL East.

"This (expletive) ain't over," Bryce Harper said a week ago.

After what happened at Nats Park the last three days, it seems pretty clear that this (expletive) - the race for the division title - is over.

The Nats' hopes of repeating as NL East champs are all but cooked. They sit 15 1/2 back of the Braves, a team they've now beaten just three times in 13 games this season, and have yet to notch a win over Atlanta in the nation's capital.

"We got about a month and a half left," Harper said after yesterday's loss, "and hopefully we can chase that wild card down."

The problem there is that the Nats have dug themselves a massive hole in the wild card chase, as well. They now sit nine games back of the Reds, who currently hold the final wild card spot, and the Nats have just 48 games remaining.

You can't blame the Nats for staying optimistic all these weeks and claiming they were confident things were going to turn for the better. That's the mindset you have to have as a player, or else you risk the team collapsing anytime it hits a rough patch. But the positive talk and inspirational messages can only go on for so long until reality starts to set in.

The Nats haven't been playing good (or even decent) ball for much of the last few months, and if things don't change dramatically and in a hurry, the focus will shift even further from the Nats' original goal.

"We've got a lot of ground to make up, but you never know what can happen in this game," manager Davey Johnson said last night, before briefly pausing. "If nothing else, get our pride back by playing better."

This isn't to say the Nats have thrown in the towel or given up on the season. They'll still keep plugging away, hoping that they'll catch the hot streak that has evaded them over the last four months. But the perspective has changed dramatically in recent months. This went from a team that was banking on regular season success and a deep postseason run to a team that is searching for positives as it starts to peak towards the future.

Jayson Werth said as much last night, in comments punched up by my colleague Byron Kerr. If you didn't happen to see them, give Werth's postgame thoughts a read.

"I read something the other day, I found some notes. It was before I signed here," Werth said. "I had written some stuff down about the different teams I was going to potentially play for. I was just kind of reading over the stuff for the Nats. One of the things said we would be good toward the end of my contract.

"It kind of put things in perspective, with the success last year and really where we're at now with the guys. We're still in the building-type phase, if you will. I know with all the expectations it didn't really seem like that, but we've got a lot of young players. The direction's still good. We've got a lot of young talent and there's a lot of things to look forward to here in Washington."

The players in the Nationals' clubhouse are optimists, but they aren't fools. Guys will keep battling every day, trying to do the improbable and pull the Nats back to the playoffs, but they're finally starting to admit that the odds of such a turnaround are slim, at best.

It's something we've known for a little while, and as much as it might pain them to say it, players and coaches now realize it, too.

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