Before the Nationals' game with the Mets on Friday, Davey Johnson spent almost a half-hour with reporters, weaving a handful of questions into what became a dissertation on the Nationals' future.
Johnson assessed the state of the Nationals' outfield and the roster in general, and came back to two conclusions he's voiced since he took over as the team's manager at the end of June: If he does his job, the Nationals will have answered almost all of their questions for 2012 by the end of the season. And if the Nationals develop their young players properly, winning should be a byproduct.
After a 7-3 loss to the Mets on Friday night, the Nationals' ninth in 10 games, Johnson again sat before reporters, this time with a different task: He had to point out where the team is still developing properly, when winning certainly isn't a byproduct.
It's probably unfair to overplay a 10-game stretch of the season, especially when young players are adjusting to a league that's figured them out and playing deeper into a season than they ever have before. But the Nationals are back to 10 games under .500, fighting to win enough to show real progress heading into 2012, and performances like the one they turned in Friday night aren't helping.
Ross Detwiler, one of the young pitchers the Nationals are trying to evaluate, was gone after three innings and a pair of homers. The Nationals scored just three runs, despite collecting 12 hits against the Mets. And they sat in a muted clubhouse afterward, doing their best to put a positive spin on a tough stretch.
"We try and win every game, but we understand the big picture, as well," third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. "These last 20-whatever games are important. We want to win, we want to climb back to .500. But we have a really good group of guys here, and I think we've taken a step forward here already. Obviously, we don't want to scuffle all September, but this year, we've done a lot of things better than we have the last couple years. To finish strong would just be some icing on the cake."
Johnson maintained he is still seeing signs of growth, and there was evidence of it on Friday night. Ian Desmond, who continues to grow into the leadoff spot, went 2-for-5 with a run and a triple. Wilson Ramos was 2-for-4, and Henry Rodriguez pulled himself together for a scoreless ninth after walking pitcher Josh Stinson.
But the whole certainly isn't equaling the sum of the parts right now, which left Johnson searching for other metrics of success after the game.
"You guys asked me what would (constitute) a good September, and I said, 'Not losing in September - that would be nice,'" Johnson said. "But No. 2 is, guys solidifying the fact that they're everyday, championship-caliber players in every aspect of the club. I think we're making progress in that direction. That's going to be my yardstick. But unless we win three out of (every) four, I'm going to have a losing season."