Nationals can put a slow month behind them


Even after taking three out of four games from the New York Mets in Sunday's 1-0 win, the Washington Nationals are still two games below .500. For the instant gratification brigade, I'm guessing a 12-14 start has provided a huge measure of disappointment. Add in the Nationals' 6-3 record in one-run games, and it could have clearly been worse.

But it is just a 12-14 stretch, highlighted mainly because it's the start of the season. Last year's division-winning team went 11-15 in May, after all, and nobody cared because by the end of June the realities of what they had and what little their opponents had going for them had played out. This year, with the Mets and Marlins expected to be better, a slow start gets thrown into much more stark relief. The losses project drama onto a situation that won't really be dramatic until we have a broader sense of what's really wrong, if anything, with the Nationals.

Four weeks isn't enough to provide more than suggestions that something isn't right. But after taking the wind out of the Mets' sails over the past four days, it should be clear that the Nationals are far from done. Doug Fister's latest good game helped the Nationals to their second 1-0 win in two days. Those wins drove home the point that this is a team that has had to rely upon pitching above all else.

On that score, things have gone as expected: The rotation has provided excellent work, cranking out 16 quality starts in those first 24 games. If not for a slow start from Stephen Strasburg (with just one good spin among his first five), they might be better still, delivering on their preseason promise that they'd get to rely on the game's best rotation. A bullpen that has blown five save opportunities doesn't help matters much, but re-christened closer Drew Storen has nailed down seven of eight opportunities. Getting Casey Janssen back in another week should shore up the set-up crew still recovering from the decision to deal away Tyler Clippard.

Beyond Strasburg's ongoing failure to blossom into the ace he long has been predicted to be, the Nationals' slow start owes much to an offense that ranked 11th in the league in OPS through Saturday. It's a collection that has scored two or fewer runs in 12 of their games, games in which they've gone 4-8.

The only hitter who has been reliably delivering has been Bryce Harper. One month in, Harper might rank among the top 10 in OPS in the league, but much like the Nats themselves, the expectation is that he should be better still. During Denard Span's early-season injury they have at least gotten an opportunity to see that prospect Michael Taylor is ready to help out as a power source in the outfield, something that should remain true from here on out.

Getting third baseman Anthony Rendon back from the disabled list later this week should also help this offense. His return should push Yunel Escobar around the diamond to man second base, and probably end the latest attempt to resurrect Dan Uggla's career. There are still other questions to sort out, like whether Jayson Werth will provide another age-defying quality campaign, this time as a 36-year-old, or whether Ryan Zimmerman will provide the offense at first base that the Nats are expecting to get from him. But the Nats came into the season with those questions built into any proposition that they'd win big this year; expecting both to turn around is a bit of confidence they should indulge.

So let's set aside the schadenfreude over the Nationals' slow start. So they didn't win the NL East in a month; outside of the 1984 Tigers, has anybody? For all those who pegged them to win at the outset, the slow start will be re-spun as a triumph over adversity. But transient hysteria aside, great teams have bad patches, because the game is hard and the season long. With five months to go, slow start or no, this still isn't a team to bet against.

Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.