The Nationals still don't have enough polished talent to afford themselves much room for error, and for most of the season, they've played like they know that. They've kept walks low, ran the bases aggressively and had a stunning 130 2/3-inning errorless streak in June, when they were playing their best baseball in six years.
Since the All-Star break, though, they've been nothing like that team. They've walked at least five batters in half of their games in the second half, and allowed nine batters to reach base on errors. Their pitching staff has given up an average of a homer a game. The one consistent thing with the rest of the season has been their offense; it's still unable to drive in runs, only now, the Nationals aren't playing well enough to survive that.
Their 5-2 loss to the Marlins on Thursday afternoon was a distillation of everything they've been doing wrong, all poured out over three hours and 38 minutes of baseball on a muggy afternoon. John Lannan walked four batters; Brad Hand walked more, but got away with it because the Nationals left 11 runners on base. Lannan threw to first base on a bunt when he heard two players yelling at him to do so, and Mike Cameron slipped home from third. Manager Davey Johnson tried to let Ian Desmond know he should think about stealing with Danny Espinosa at the plate in the fourth, but Desmond and Jerry Hairston Jr. took the sign as a double steal, and Desmond got thrown out at third for the final out of the inning on a pitch right down the middle, as Johnson and third-base coach Bo Porter sorted out the mixup in an animated dugout discussion.
It was an ugly afternoon, and now the Nationals have lost nine of 12 since the break. They're back to six games under .500, after getting swept at home for the first time this year.
"For the last few nights for sure, it seems like fundamentally, we haven't been that sound," said right fielder Jayson Werth, who drove in both of the Nationals' runs. "That's not hard to get back on track. That's just focus, and playing the game the right way. Just chalk that up to kind of a bad stretch. Realistically, we've got to play better baseball."
Werth didn't have any concrete theories on why the Nationals have slipped since the break, though he thought it was a possibility that some young players might be distracted by seeing their name in trade talks.
But the trade deadline will have come and gone in another 48 hours, so if the Nationals don't regain their form after that, they'll have to entertain other possibilities for why they've come crashing back to earth in the second half.
"It's a personal thing," Werth said. "You can't have a meeting about it or anything like that. You come out focused, ready to play, ready to win, and be tenacious. We've got the team to do it. It's easy to do, really - you see teams do it all the time. It's part of the game. We just need to refocus a little bit. One of the things we've done this year that's been a big bonus is, we play the game the right way. We do do the right things. We've been doing that stuff. We've just got to refocus and get back on track."