As much as anything they've done this season, the Nationals have stayed around .500 because of their ability to avoid long losing streaks. This isn't a supremely talented team, but it is a sturdy one, and aside from one stretch in May, the Nationals have maintained their composure surprisingly well.
But there's no denying that in the last week, they've played some of their worst baseball of the year, dropping two appetizing series in Houston and Los Angeles and getting no-hit after the first inning on Sunday against the Dodgers. And after another ugly loss to the Marlins on Tuesday night - an 11-2 drubbing that put them back in last place for the first time since June 14 - everybody was turning into an amateur psychologist.
Outfielder Laynce Nix - who had a solo homer and one of the Nationals' three hits - thought it might be lethargy, and was hoping Jonny Gomes, his former Cincinnati teammate who was acquired in a Tuesday trade, might bring a spark. Manager Davey Johnson thought pitcher Jordan Zimmermann, who has started twice in the 10 games the Nationals have played in the last 16 days, was affected by a long layoff. And he went back on his earlier guess that the Nationals might be overanxious at the plate, venting instead about the team's high number of called strikeouts.
There didn't seem to be one common answer for what's plagued the Nationals since the All-Star break. The only running theme was frustration.
"I see us as too good to have extended losing streaks," Johnson said. "I keep waiting for everything to gel a little bit. It's not sitting well with me. I have a high boiling point, and I'm getting closer to it."
The Nationals have now lost seven of 10 since the All-Star break. They dropped to four games below .500 for the first time since June 15, and watched the Marlins pass them for fourth place in the NL East.
Zimmermann allowed six runs in 6 2/3 innings, giving up two long home runs to Logan Morrison and Greg Dobbs - one on a middle-in fastball, the other on a hanging slider. And the Nationals have now managed five hits in their last two games, after Ricky Nolasco took a no-hitter into the fifth inning. At least that was better than what happened to their top farm team on Tuesday; Triple-A Syracuse lost as Justin Germano, a 28-year-old pitcher for Columbus, threw a perfect game.
At the end of the day, the Nationals' frustration was tinged with hopefulness, or maybe defiance; they continued to insist they're better than what they've shown lately. They probably are, but they're also probably not as good as they were in June, when they went 17-10 and won eight one-run games.
More and more, they look like what they were expected to be all along: an improving team, but one that's still a year away from escaping mediocrity, even if you won't hear them say it.
"We've had stretches where we've played really well, and that wasn't a fluke. We're going to do that again," Nix said. "We could easily get on another 10, 12-game win streak. The makeup of this club is such that I think that could happen."