Despite having played well for nearly the entire season, both the media and fans of the Washington Nationals point to a July 20 affair with the Atlanta Braves, a game that saw the Nationals lose in 13 innings after leading 9-0, as a sort of catalyst for the team. They highlight the series as a turning point for the Nationals even though the team entered the series with a record of 53-37 and a .589 winning percentage.
Since that series, the Nationals have posted a record of 24-13, good for a .649 winning percentage. And while they have certainly played better since gift-wrapping the largest lead in franchise history and handing it to a divisional rival, is the team’s performance really representative of a turn-around? Probably not.
The thing is, the Nationals were already playing well up until that series. Sure, the July 20 game marked a distinct lapse in performance, but all it really represented was a change from playing well to playing better.
Now, as the Nationals head into a short two-game series with the Miami Marlins, a series that comes on the heels of a four-game losing streak, they sit on the cusp of what could potentially be a true turning point – for better or worse.
Two-game series are a rare beast in baseball. With but two games to play, it is either sweep, split or be swept. And though one might not be apt to consider such a short series a very important one, for a team that is coming off of a three-game sweep at the hands of the Philadelphia Phillies, it is exactly that.
The first game of a two-game series for a team in the position in which the Nationals find themselves is by no means a must-win, but it must feel as though it is. Obviously, without a win in the first game they can only hope to split the series. But aside from the eventual outcome of the series, the first game is the difference between snapping what has become – for the Nationals – a prolonged losing streak or tying a season-high with five straight losses.
So what is it that makes this potential turning point any different from the original so-called turning point? After all, the Nationals do hold the best record in baseball at 77-50. You do not get to the top by loafing around.
The difference is that the Nationals are no longer playing as well as we have come to expect. In the last three games, fans were treated to a trio of base-running blunders, each of which could have been prevented and each of which impacted eventual outcomes.
Is it time to panic? Far from it. But with two disastrous September collapses hanging in baseball’s memory banks, it is hard to avoid imagining the scenario claiming a historically bad Washington team. Nevertheless, the team has proven its resilience time and time again.
In the end, this series has the potential to either demoralize or spark momentum heading into the season’s final month.