The Nationals, mercifully, got a scheduled day off yesterday for the first time since May 9, after a 15-game stretch (with one rainout) that included six one-run losses, three shutouts and one very bad road trip that sent them home seven games under .500.
They start a six-game homestand with three against the second-worst team in the National League, the San Diego Padres. And if they'd like to save themselves from becoming irrelevant, they'd better do it now. They might not get another chance.
For the Nationals, the worst thing about going 1-7 on their road trip to New York, Baltimore and Milwaukee was that it was supposed to be an easy stretch of their schedule; all three teams were under .500 at the start of the trip. But the Orioles took two out of three, using the Nationals as a springboard for a five-game win streak that got them back to .500. And the Brewers connected a sweep of the Nationals with another sweep of the Rockies, putting together a six-game win streak that came after they'd won seven of their last 10.
Those two teams are doing what the Nationals haven't been able to do: put together a meaningful win streak. Their best run of the season was a four-game win streak in April, when they swept the Brewers and won the series opener in St. Louis. And for the better part of two years, the Nationals have been unable to sustain their play for long stretches; the last time they won more than four in a row was the end of the 2009 season, when they won the last seven against other teams' September call-ups to finish 59-103.
The Nationals were one of only four teams in baseball not to have at least one five-game win streak last year (Arizona, Baltimore and Kansas City were the others), and though they've had three stretches where they've won four of five this year, they're still waiting for a legitimate tear.
Win streaks are the connective tissue of good seasons, and at this point, the Nationals need one just to make themselves relevant again. In a season where mediocrity has reigned so far, the Nationals have the fourth-worst record in baseball, and they're farther out of first place than all but two teams in the game (the Twins and Astros). If they can't beat up on the Padres this weekend, their next task would be turning things around against the Phillies - who have the best record in the NL and have beaten them five times already. After that comes an 11-game road trip to the West Coast, during which they'll play seven against the streaking Diamondbacks and the defending world champion Giants.
If they don't heat up quickly, they could easily be 10 games or more under .500 by the time they get Ryan Zimmerman back from surgery. They continue to talk about how they're playing good baseball, but the time to make that count for something has to be now. Otherwise, it might not happen at all this year.