The Nats and Mets, for all intents and purposes, are tied for first in the NL East.
I did not expect to be writing that back on Friday. But here we are. The Nats offense continued to sputter and the Mets swept the Nats in a series that sets up the rest of the season as a 55+ (Nats 59, Mets 57) game... well not sprint.... let's say 10K to the finish. Both teams have relatively easy schedules. The Nats have more home games, the Mets more games away. It should be a close one. I did not expect to be writing that back in June.
What has gone wrong? And it is what has gone wrong. As much credit as you have to give to the Mets the Nats are now on an 85 win pace, about 10 games off where most people expected them to be. For all those screaming "just wait until they get healthy", they are pretty much healthy now and they are performing worse, not better. The team has scored more than 2 runs once in the past 7 games.
What has gone wrong is underperformance when playing by people the Nats were relying on. You know about Ian. Ramos has been just as bad. Michael Taylor, #1 OF sub has been too. So have Werth and Zimm. That's four regulars and one important sub who have just been hideous this year. On the other side Zimmerman has merely been ok, Gio average, Fister bad and Strasburg terrible early on when most of his innings came. Roark, the first in line replacement, has been nothing more than fair. Treinen, the presumed 8th inning guy and heir apparent to the closer role, was not good and worse in big spots. While the Nats have had some bright spots it's hard to balance out all those dim ones.
What has gone wrong is a dimming of those few bright spots. Clint Robinson, super sub, has hit .208 with no homers since July 20th. Since June 19th, Espinosa has hit .208 / .252 / .302 with 32 Ks in 116 PAs.
What has gone wrong is superstars no longer carrying the team on their backs. Max Scherzer, once arguably in commanding lead for the NL Cy Young, had a good but not great July, posting a 3.42 ERA and giving up almost as many HRs in the month as he had in the previous 3. Bryce, who looked like he might run away and hide with the NL MVP, had an off July for this season hitting .307 / .435 / .557. Neither of these months are bad at all. Hell, Bryce's month for the whole year would probably put him 2nd in MVP voting. But the team was being held up in some respects by these two guys and as they return to mere mortal and mere demi-god status the team suffers.
What has gone wrong is a manager unable to use the back end of his pen with any effectiveness in close games. It's one thing to hold a lights-out closer until the 9th inning. While there is almost certainly better usage from that asset possible, the 9th inning in a save situation will by definition be an important inning. And frankly convention has dictated that saves must be had. If no one is taking advantage of better usage then relatively you don't lose anything compared to other teams by following orthodoxy. However, it appears that Matt Williams is stuck not only there but on the expanded idea of having an "8th inning guy" to the point where Storen won't be seen unless there is a lead to protect in the 8th. We saw the end result of such rigid thinking this week as neither Storen nor Papelbon saw the light of day for arguably the three most important games the Nats have played this year.
What has gone wrong is a GM, likely hampered by budget and possibly hampered by his own long-term view, gambling on losing the season rather than losing prospects. It has to be seen as a possibility that some combination of Werth, Zimmerman, and Rendon will not comeback to perform at adequate levels, at least this year. It has to be seen that perhaps Espinosa's fast start was not indicative of his ability and that Michael Taylor may not find his way this season. With that in mind a bat that you can rely on would be extremely helpful. Mike Rizzo did not make such a move. It is fairly clear that he could not add salary, however dangle enough prospects in front of a team and salaries may be swallowed.
The Nats are still the better team, in theory. While the Mets have a better rotation (I've been saying that for a couple months now) the gap should not be that big and Nats should have a better lineup and a better bullpen. However all of those things are stuck on the word "should". The rotation and the line-up have to prove themselves better by performing to a higher standard for the next two months. The bullpen has to be used better to show the talent differential.
Theoretical advantages stop mattering when play begins. "Should" and "theory" are great for pre-season, maybe even early Spring, but here in the dog days, those are worthless terms. Now "is" and "reality" take precedence. The Nats are not anything special and 100+ games in they've played no better than the Mets. That's where we stand. If they want us to believe they are better now, they are going to have to prove it on the field.