Plenty of teams have started .500 or so in their first 20 games and made the playoffs, won the division, or even won the series. I don't even have to look it up that's how confident I am about the above.
At the same time the Nats need to now play 5 games better than the Braves over the next 142 games to take the NL East. That's a lot of games but that's a lot of ground against a team that you expected to be roughly 5 games better than. The Nats can't afford to go into May 7-8 games back and reasonably expect to catch the Braves. It would still be possible, most certainly, but you'd have to stop expecting it.
Any encouraging signs from the fancy stats?
Offensively BABIP is always the one you look at first and the Nats are among the lowest in the league at .275. It's not crazy low but it suggests improvement to come as the luck improves. LaRoche and Chad Tracy should see the most improvement. (discouraging I can't avoid talking about what's in front of my eyes counter argument - the Nats line drive rate, which is the
type of hit that varies most consistently with BABIP, is at 18%, that's
low. So part of this isn't luck but guys just not hitting the ball
HR/FB overall is pretty average, though Danny Espinosa (7.1%) and the bench (which has 0 homers) should see some overall improvement. Desmond and Werth are also seeing some bad luck here during this recent slump. (No real counter - Ramos should hit less but he's barely played. I won't rule anything out for Bryce, even a 30% HR/FB ratio)
The offense has been very hit or miss. That doesn't sound encouraging but in general your offensive output should have a pretty normal distribution (as normal as you can get with only 162 data points) It will win games for the Nats but then help lose them. Since losing that first game versus the Braves 4-6 look at the Nats run scoring distribution : 0 0 0 1 1 2 2 6 7 10. Averages out a little below average but those are 3 games you expect to win and 7 you expect to lose. This should even out over the next few weeks and give the Nats some more 3-5 runs scored games.
Pitching wise the intermediate pen is having some bad luck with batted balls. Duke, Storen, Stammen and Mattheus all have BABIPs over .300 recently and they seem out of line with what they should be. There are alos a couple of too high HR/FBs here. (counter - you could say that Soriano and especially Clippard are getting lucky recently.)
At least part of Gio's problem also comes from some bad BABIP and HR/FB luck. He's not as bad as he's seemed the last few starts (counter - that walk rate though is out of control. It needs to come back down for him to be elite)
Verdict? Both the hitting and pitching should get better, but not too much. Now that's over the season, so in comparison to the past 10-14 days the hitting should get much better. It's going to be enough to start winning more than they are losing. Is it going to be enough to catch the Braves though? The potentially long chase begins in less than a week.