The Nationals have played 40 games, a quarter of the season and the juncture at which manager Jim Riggleman said he'd no longer consider them to be in the opening phase of their season. So what are they?
Maybe now is the point at which they start to find out. Maybe it's too soon to say they're just an average team. Perhaps the 40-game slate they've played is too tough to expect anything more than a .500 record, and maybe anyone prepared to scoff at the five-game losing streak that has dropped the Nationals back to 20-20 should preface it by remembering a year ago at this juncture, the Nationals were completing their second seven-game losing streak on the way to a 12-28 mark.
But this is not last year's team, and the players who will arrive back in the Nationals Park clubhouse tomorrow after a 3-6 road trip will be the first ones to tell you that. They want no part of any comparison with that squad, and are looking for a higher standard. That's why this five-game losing streak, which continued on Tuesday night with a 3-2 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals, isn't sitting so well.
The way they lost on Tuesday night was the way they won so many games in the first quarter of the season. Instead of Tyler Clippard keeping a close game titled in the Nationals' favor, the setup man gave up a crucial homer to Ryan Ludwick. Rather than riding a strong outing from a starting pitcher to a victory, the Nationals got a quality start from John Lannan and failed to cash in on it with enough runs to get past Cardinals ace Chris Carpenter. And they ended a nine-game road trip with five losses against two playoff teams when they'd made a habit of beating good teams to start the year.
"If we get home, get a couple wins, we'll be right back where we were before," outfielder Josh Willingham said in a televised postgame interview. "A 162-game season, you're going to lose a few in a row. That's the way it is. You just want to make it end as quickly as possible."
The Nationals got nine hits off Carpenter, but left nine men in scoring position. Ryan Zimmerman and Josh Willingham each grounded into double plays, and the Nationals left Willingham on third after Ian Desmond singled home Zimmerman to tie the game in the eighth.
That became crucial when Clippard threw a "cement mixer' of a pitch, an 85-mph cutter on the middle inner half of the plate, to Ryan Ludwick, who blasted it into the left-field seats and put the Cardinals up for good in the bottom of the eighth.
It was Clippard's third loss in four games; during that stretch, he's given up five runs after allowing two the rest of the season.
"I feel good. I'm just not making the pitches when I need to," Clippard said. "That's the biggest thing right now. It happens. I'll just stay the course, still work hard. It's tough right now."
The Nationals couldn't tie the game again in the ninth, and now they come home with a .500 record, a five-game homestand against the Mets and Orioles and a handful of questions. Are they good enough to make a surge against a weak stretch of the schedule over the next two months, or will they continue to alternate short stretches of impressive baseball with ones full of missed opportunities?
The start of the season is over. Now's when they start to find answers.
"It's tough, because guys are going out there and really battling," Riggleman said in his televised postgame interview. "We're playing good baseball. I'm proud of our guys. We're playing hard. Sometimes we're not playing as smart as we need to. But I think these other clubs are recognizing we're not that fun to play against any more."