Is there a sadder phrase in sports than "regression to the mean?" It's the idea in baseball that no matter how well you're playing at a given moment, you're merely cheating the inevitable, and ultimately time - not to mention the game's gravitational pull toward failure - will catch up with you.
For most of the season's first six weeks, when the Nationals ran their record to 20-15 and gave themselves a couple shots to grab a semi-meaningful share of first place in the NL East for the first time in five years, everyone in baseball kept whispering the phrase. The Nationals were outplaying their Pythagorean win expectation - which uses a team's run differential as a barometer of what its record should be - by three to four games, and at some point, all the close games they were winning would turn the other way.
That's officially happened.
The Nationals lost in walk-off fashion to the Astros, a team that's clearly inferior to them, on Thursday, dropping their record to 26-29. They went 3-7 on their road trip, losing three games by one run and another three by two runs. Their record in one-run games has dropped back to 10-9, and yes, the Nationals' 26-29 mark matches their Pythagorean expectation.
They do have better things coming - 12 of their next 18 at home, and the shot in the arm Stephen Strasburg should provide. But that stretch starts with three against the surprising Reds, who can put the Nationals into a certified funk before Strasburg gets to them. And they'll have to answer the question about whether they've regressed to the mean, or whether they're a good team going through a slump.
Sorry for the depressing tone there. Maybe some Golden Geese will cheer you up:
Ryan Zimmerman: At 25 years old, he's already the Nationals' Old Reliable; he quietly went 2-for-2 with a walk, and scored two runs against the Astros. Zimmerman walked nine times in the series, scoring eight runs, and he's hitting .311. After quietly having his best year in 2009 and putting himself in the upper crust of the game's third basemen, Zimmerman is - just as quietly - aiming to top it.
Josh Willingham: The other force of consistency in the Nationals' lineup, Willingham went 2-for-4 with an RBI, and has knocked in 11 of them in his last 31 at-bats. He's playing decent defense in left field, too, though not enough to convince manager Jim Riggleman to leave him in the game with a late lead.
Willie Harris: Entering the game in the sixth inning, Harris made his mark on it in the ninth, lashing an 0-1 pitch from Matt Lindstrom to left for what became a triple when Carlos Lee misplayed it. As it bounced over the left fielder's head, Michael Morse raced home to tie the game, and Harris would eventually score the go-ahead run on Cristian Guzman's blooper to center.
Cristian Guzman: His go-ahead single was quickly negated by his crucial ninth-inning error, one of three Guzman made on Thursday at two different positions. First, Guzman committed two at shortstop, one on a casual sidearm flip that hopped in the dirt and allowed Jeff Keppinger to reach base when Adam Dunn couldn't pick the throw. Jeff Keppinger reached base on the play, and later scored. And in the ninth, Guzman was in right field (a new position for him) when Lance Berkman hit a sinking liner to right. Guzman took a couple steps in the wrong direction, and had his feet caught sideways when he lunged for the ball, watching it go underneath his glove as the Astros scored the tying run. Guzman said he lost it in the lights, but it was an otherwise routine fly ball that should've ended the game and given the Nationals a win.
Matt Capps: None of the runs Capps allowed were earned, on the grounds that none of them would have scored if Guzman hadn't misplayed the ball in right. But he came back and overthrew a slider to Lee, who atoned for his defensive mistake by blasting it to left for a walk-off homer. Capps looked frustrated on the pitch, and might have gripped it too tightly, robbing it of some rotation and movement. But it was his second blown save in a series that featured four of them in as many games by both teams.
In Case You Missed It:
--With two out in the sixth inning, Roger Bernadina stole second, and Astros catcher Kevin Cash faked a throw down there, hoping it would induce Willingham into breaking for home. But Willingham recognized the trap immediately and stayed at third. He didn't score, but it was still a smart decision by the left fielder.
--Adam Dunn saved a Zimmerman error on Cash's infield single in the bottom of the sixth. The ball forced Zimmerman to his right, and when he turned to throw, he made what looked like a 40-yard rainbow on a fly pattern. Luckily, Dunn recognized it, left the bag and caught the throw, preventing Cash from reaching second and Pedro Feliz from scoring. The throw probably wouldn't have beat Cash anyway, but Dunn made sure the Astros didn't score off the ball getting away from him.
--When Berkman poked one over the short left field wall in the third inning, TV cameras clearly showed J.D. Martin mouthing "oh, wow." The ball was short enough Martin couldn't believe it went out of the park. But Minute Maid Park has a reputation for being a bit of a bandbox.
1. The question on my mind after the game - and one of the things we were discussing here was what you do with right field in situations like yesterday. Michael Morse had been in the game after starting the Nationals' ninth-inning rally with a two-out pinch hit, but Riggleman pulled him for Guzman. Morse is limited defensively, but has more professional experience in right than Guzman does. If Morse can't play there late, and he isn't starting, what value does he serve?
2. How deflating is it to lose three of four in Houston? Do you believe the Nationals are regressing to what they are, or is this just a slump that will eventually be offset by the winning streak the team hasn't had yet?
Leave your answers in the comments section, as usual. Back at Nationals Park today for the first time in what seems like a month - the Nationals and Reds start at 7:05 p.m.