Through their first 35 games, the Nationals had staked themselves to a second-place ledge in the NL East, despite not doing anything at a particularly elite level, by staying away from the kinds of losing streaks that had pockmarked their schedule the last two seasons. They hadn't lost more than three straight games all season, playing slump-proof baseball with a clubhouse of veterans and a manager who's tough to impress.
Now, at the end of what might be one of their toughest road trips of the year, the Nationals are in a legitimate skid, with a four-game losing streak that could become five if they can't beat a former Cy Young winner tomorrow night. And how they respond to it will reveal as much about this team as anything in the first 40 games of the season.
The Nationals fell 6-2 to the St. Louis Cardinals on Monday night, losing for the fourth time in a row and slipping back to within a game of .500. After a road trip that started with the Nationals taking two out of three in New York, they've fallen four times in a row against 2009 NL playoff teams. To keep the streak from hitting five, they'd have to beat 2005 Cy Young winner (and 2009 Cy Young runner-up) Chris Carpenter tomorrow night.
Even with a win, the Nationals would finish the nine-game road trip with a 4-5 mark. That's not a bad record, but at the beginning of the road swing, Washington looked capable of more.
"We had a lot of positives tonight," said shortstop Ian Desmond, who went 4-for-4 after being added to the lineup in a last-minute shuffle precipitated by Adam Dunn's late scratch with flu symptoms. "We just had another game where we couldn't get it going on a rhythm."
Craig Stammen gave up four runs in the first inning to the Cardinals, a two-out walk to Matt Holliday setting the charge to blow by putting a runner on base for Albert Pujols (who was hitting cleanup for the first time since 2003). Pujols singled, and the next three Cardinals batters followed with hits off Stammen, including David Freese's triple that gave St. Louis a 3-0 lead in the first.
The Nationals scored a couple runs off struggling Cardinals starter Kyle Lohse in the fifth, getting some help when Skip Schumaker made an ill-advised throw to first with little chance of retiring Roger Bernadina. Schumaker's throw missed Pujols, and the Nationals scored two runs. But they left runners on second and third in both the seventh and ninth innings.
And now, they're five games behind the Phillies in the NL East, in danger of falling back to .500 after getting to 20-15 last Thursday with a win over the Rockies. If tomorrow is the unofficial quarter pole of the season, the Nationals are hitting it while in bad shape. Their second through fifth hitters went 0-for-15 with a walk on Monday night, and as well as Stammen recovered from his first-inning slide, his early struggles all but killed the Nationals' chances of winning.
"He really pitched better in the first inning than what the results showed, a couple tough plays and they got three runs four runs," Nationals manager Jim Riggleman said in his televised postgame interview. "He's a good pitcher, he's got a good breaking ball, a good slider. The first-inning walk was the key. He got the first two hitters out, and then the walk. That seems to have bit him a couple times this year already."
Now, what they do tomorrow will reveal something about the Nationals. Can John Lannan, their struggling ace-for-now, match Carpenter against a Cardinals lineup full of nasty right-handed hitters? And can the Nationals salvage the road trip with a victory in a building where they haven't won since 2007?
If the answer to those questions is no, the Nationals will head home in the middle of a bona-fide slump.
"We're not going to surrender to anybody," Desmond said. "We're a winning ballclub. We know we can play with anybody, and that's what we're going to do."