The 2013 Nats season has been boiled down to a simple set of statements. The Nats suffered important injuries early in the year. In the starters' places, the bench, questionably remaining the same from an over-their-heads 2012, produced hideously. Rizzo was too slow to make any changes. When the team finally got healthy and made a push at season's end, it was too late. End of story.
However, this convenient cliff notes version leaves out something important. From game 115 on the Nats went on a 32-16 run, playing better than anyone in baseball, but the team was back together healthy at game 85. What happened from game 85 through game 114?
After Bryce came back on July 1st, Ramos would return to the team on July 4th, game 85. The Nats would immediately win 4 in a row and pull within 4 of the Braves and 4 of the 2nd Wild Card. Here come the Nats, right?
Wrong. The Nats would then go 2-5 leading up to the All-Star break and would follow that up coming out of the All-Star break 6-13. That 8-18 stretch culminated in a sweep by Atlanta that left the Nats 15 1/2 games out of the NL East lead, 9 1/2 out of the 2nd Wild Card and unofficially ended the season.
Stories tended to focus on this period as if it was simply a continuation of the earlier season and whatever conclusions that they had drawn from those first three months were re-inforced by the poor record. But this was with the full team, it had to be different and it was. The starters, as good as one would expect every other month, had their worst month of the year in July, putting up a 4.53 ERA. ZNN (7.18, next worse month 3.86), Gio (5.34), Stras (4.62, next worse month 3.24) - blame went across the board. The relievers put up their 2nd worst month by ERA (0.01 better than March/Apr) and probably their worst pitched month (1.438 WHIP, next worse was 1.328), with Stammen, Soriano, Mattheus and Storen all putting up ERAs over 4.50.
The bad pitching hurt, but it could have been mitigated by some timely hitting now that the band was back together. But while Wertth and Ramos hit well, they were cancelled out by Rendon (.556) and LaRoche (.511) completely crapping out. The remainder of the team, Bryce, Desmond, Span and Zimmerman, all produced at a average level (OPS from .732 to .786). End result a very average month hitting (7th in NL in runs scored). The hitting wasn't the problem, but it wouldn't be the solution either.
What's the point? The point is even though the Nats are healthy they aren't immune to long periods of bad play. If you are just assuming the Nats will take over first and coast to the playoffs, you are getting ahead of yourself. They should do it. For one thing, you can argue that the team is slightly better with Fister, Roark, a head on straight Storen, a more seasoned Rendon. For another, they are starting from a better spot. 51-42 and tied for first rather than 47-48 and 6 games out. But should isn't will. Even without a major injury the Nats could see 30-45 days of poor play for no other reason than "it happens". Don't take anything for granted.
It's a message for the fans, but it's a message for the team too. They should make those minor improvements. They should try to maximize the team's potential, even if by just a game or so. Remember last year at this time they traded for Scott Hairston... and that's it. They did nothing for three months leading up to the Nats being healthy again, and they did next to nothing when they were healthy but struggling. They assumed when healthy the Nats would win and that would be enough. They waited... and waited... and waited for the cream to rise and quite possibly waited the team out of the playoffs. You don't know if those games will matter, even for a healthy team capable of winning 2/3rd of their games for long periods of time. It happens.