The question right now is not one of "Can a healthy Nats team win the pennant". Everyone thought so last year, everyone thinks so this year, everything we've seen when the Nats are healthy suggests its possible. The question is whether an injured Nats team can hang close enough to the rest of the playoff teams to come back.
The first test was this time frame between May 12th and May 25th. Over that stretch the Nats would play an easy schedule and the Marlins and Braves would play hard ones. Even an injured Nats team should make up games in this scenario. They have made up one so far. The Nats have gone 5-4, while the Marlins and Braves have both gone 4-5. Disappointing but at least it's something. The next 4 games (Nats @ Pirates, Braves v Rockies, Marlins v Brewers) will end this set of games. The Nats could gain another half-game. If they lose ground though... be worried.
And by be worried, I mean exactly that. Don't panic, but be concerned that when the Nats had a golden chance to make up ground they failed to do so. That hints that when these injured Nats face a tough stretch things could go horribly wrong. In about 2 weeks they'll begin that tough stretch @SF @STL v HOU! vATL @ MIL where it's likely they'll lose ground. Bryce won't be there. What if Zimm isn't? What if Gio isn't? Based on what we've seen so far, they'll probably lose several games in the standings. If it's 4 or 5 games to fall back 6+ games, if the Braves take 3 or more of those head to heads... well then you can panic.
Why is this happening? In Nats Theory 101, the Nats should be able to be carried through stretches by their pitching. That was the idea. Build one of the best pitching staffs, top to bottom, and watch it carry the offense through trying times.
It isn't happening but it's not because the pitching is failing.
For example in the last 8 games the Nats have an ERA of 2.69. That includes Gio's game. Their record during this time? 4-4. Take out the Gio game and the ERA drops to 2.38. So in 7 of the last 8 games the team has collectively pitched like a Top 15 starter (at this point in the year where ERAs are still a little skewed) and to show for it they have 4 wins and 3 losses.
You might pass that off on the teams they faced. The Reds without Votto and Bruce might be the worst offense in the NL. The D-backs are below average. The Mets are average. But then you have to consider the reverse. The D-backs have the worst pitching staff in the league. The Mets' arms are below average. The Reds better than average but with real relief issues that are still being worked out. How did the offense do?
.232 / .283 / .329
It's a team of Kevin Frandsens.
And that was facing mediocre pitching for the most part. What happens when they face good pitching? You might be fooled by the "5th in Runs Scored" stat, but that's just a quirk of variance. Look at R/G (better than runs for obvious reasons) and they are 6th. They are .17 runs worse then 4th place. They are .17 runs better than 10th. They are closer to 12th place then 3rd. In other words for the season as a whole - these guys are nothing special.
Is it injuries? Yes, of course. Having Bryce, LaRoche and Zimmerman back in the lineup will help. I'd imagine that lineup would be a "real" Top 5 team. But when exactly will that be? LaRoche might be back Sunday (though Monday makes a lot more sense). Regardless it'll be soon. Bryce looks good, but his early July timetable hasn't changed and Zimm is taking the slow road to recovery. It's one thing to beat the Braves and those Wild Card teams straight up over 162 games. It's another to spot them a 7 game lead and try to do it in 90 games.
Also, at that point the hitting will be better and the pitching will be healthy (one hopes) but there are three aspects of baseball. What about the fielding. It takes a team that would be among the best in the league in runs scored and makes it pretty much average. While some of the numbers look funny (Espy & Rendon especially) what about the returning guys makes you think this is getting better anytime soon? Zimm can be very good, but can easily be awful. LaRoche wasn't great before, with hammy issues he'll be even more of a statue. Bryce has yet to click and likely McLouth is better out there.
This is a long-winded way of saying - I really hope the Nats make up a few games this weekend. If not, as crazy as it may sound, a deal for a bat might be in order, just to keep the Nats in it for the time being. Unfortunate it has to come to that but it just might.