Nats’ last 19 games all about salvaging

The Nationals have three weeks and 19 games left in a 2010 season that is looking more and more like 2008 and 2009 by the day. They fell to 60-83, a season-low 23 games below .500 with Sunday’s 6-5 loss to the Marlins, and lost for the tenth time in their last 11 one-run games. When they were able to win those games earlier in the season, often against better teams, the Nationals are dropping them with regularity now.

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Manager Jim Riggleman dressed his team down after Sunday’s loss, employing a tactic he’s had to use several times this season, and let his coaches get in on the act on Sunday. Early this season, we heard about how the Nationals were agonizing over losses and correcting their mistakes quickly; now, they’re dropping late-season games with the same kind of workday regularity they did the last two years.

And in the last 19 games, there are still plenty of issues to work out.

This is still a team that hasn’t won more than three games in a row; the closest thing the Nationals have to a legitimate hot streak came back in April, when they won 10 out of 15 games. Part of that comes down to consistent starting pitching, but the Nationals have mostly had that (save for Sunday’s three-inning outing from Jordan Zimmermann). Their offense, though, has turtled again after a torrid start to the month. Getting just one sign that they’re capable of reeling off five or six in a row would go a long way.

Speaking of Zimmermann, he’s got a few things to prove in his final outings of the season. Setting aside his spectacular six-inning, one-hit, nine-strikeout performance against the Marlins on Aug. 31, Zimmermann hasn’t lasted longer than four innings in any of his four starts. His defense hasn’t helped him in his last two, but the Nationals are counting on Zimmermann to be at or near the front of their rotation next year, and he has only posted back-to-back quality starts once in the majors (last June 25 and July 1).

Lastly, here’s another guy a late-season surge would help: Drew Storen. He’s been sharp in five outings this month, not allowing a run after blowing a save and taking a loss at the end of August. But since the Nationals traded Matt Capps, they’ve only had five wins that included a save. Three of those came from Storen, but they were all at least eight days apart. It’d be nice for the Nationals to see him save back-to-back games, or lock down a handful of them in a week, just to have an idea of how he can handle the job next year.

Then again, playing this way, there isn’t much need for a closer.

Here’s what I’d like to hear from you: Which players do you think particularly need to finish the season on a high note, or prove something for next year?