What did we learn about the Nationals during a 2-7 trip?

PHILADELPHIA – What’s the mood in the clubhouse at the end of a 2-7 road trip? It’s not upbeat, that’s for sure. But in the Nationals’ case, neither was it downtrodden.

Sunday’s 11-5 loss to the Phillies may have been one of the Nats’ worst games of the season, but it wasn’t necessarily reflective of the way they played through the rest of their long trip to Boston, Chicago and Philadelphia.

They lost seven games, yes. But five of those losses were by one or two runs. In each of those cases, one more timely hit or one more well-executed pitch would’ve flipped the script and produced a win for the visitors.

Recognizing that, the Nationals emerged from the carnage feeling more optimistic about the state of things than they probably should have felt.

“It was nine really good baseball games,” outfielder Jesse Winker said. “You hang your hat on that, then you get back home tomorrow and get some home cooking and give it hell.”

Let’s be clear about something: This was not a good road trip for the Nats, and nobody is trying to make that claim. But neither was it as lopsided as it sounds, given how close most games were, thanks almost entirely to the pitching staff.

Prior to Sunday’s finale, when the Phillies scored nine runs over their final four innings, Nationals pitchers collectively allowed only 3.1 runs and 7.2 hits per game during the trip, producing a sparkling 2.79 ERA.

They didn’t give up more than four earned runs in any of their previous 13 games. That’s a stretch that included games against the Phillies and Orioles, two of the most productive offensive clubs in baseball.

“It shows that we can play with anybody in our division, anybody in our league,” closer Kyle Finnegan said.

The irony is that the Nationals haven’t played many games within their division yet. The season’s more than one-quarter complete, but they’ve played only 10 games against National League East foes. They have yet to face the Braves or Mets in 2024.

On the other side of the equation, they’ve already played 20 games against American League teams, nearly 50 percent of the total schedule. And more interleague play is coming, with three of the next four series against AL opponents.

No matter who they play, the Nationals are showing they have the ability to keep things close on the strength of their pitching staff, whose 3.74 ERA entering Sunday was their best since 2016.

What they’re also showing is they don’t have enough offensive might to take full advantage of those pitching performances. They rank 27th in the majors in runs, hits, homers and batting average, 29th in slugging percentage.

Had they merely delivered one more timely hit with runners in scoring position in any of those five close losses, they might be returning home now with a winning record and tons of optimism. Instead, they’re clearly pressing at the plate, unable to sustain any kind of offensive success.

Help is on the way in Lane Thomas, who is set to begin a minor league rehab assignment Tuesday and could be back in the major league lineup by week’s end, ultimately missing a month with an MCL sprain in his left knee. Thomas alone isn’t going to turn the entire lineup potent, but at minimum his return will allow Davey Martinez to stick with a consistent 1-2 combo atop his lineup, with Thomas batting behind leadoff man CJ Abrams.

And help is eventually coming in the form of James Wood, one of the top prospects in baseball who is starting to look like he has mastered Triple-A pitching. With another strong showing Sunday, the 21-year-old Rochester outfielder is now batting .353/.457/.564 in 41 games this season. It feels like only a matter of time before the Nats make the long-awaited move and find out what the kid can do in the majors.

Until then, the Nationals can only try to keep pitching well and hope to scratch out a few more runs when they’re at the plate themselves.

They’re mired in a season-worst, five-game losing streak. But there’s a different expectation level inside this year’s clubhouse. They believe they’re a much better ballclub than that.

At some point, though, the results have to match the belief.

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