What is going on with the Nationals? What to make of a deficit in late April.

Doug Fister on Monday in Atlanta. (Erik S. Lesser/EPA)

What is going on with the Nationals? Three weeks into the season, they are 7-13, third-worst in the majors, and a six-game losing streak has dropped them to the bottom of the NL East. A team with a host of preseason expectations has been woefully underwhelming. And it isn’t simply their record but how they’ve lost: bad defense, shaky bullpen, poor offensive execution and mental mistakes.

There are 142 games left to play. It feels almost disingenuous to look at the standings this early in the season but it’s a natural reaction after a rough stretch. And no matter the time of the year, an eight-game deficit is a substantial margin. At no point last season — even through all the injuries, the rough start, a 27-28 record on June 1 — did the Nationals trail by eight games. Their biggest deficit was four.

So yes, there is plenty of time for the Nationals to clean up the mistakes that keep recurring. And they will have to hope that the Mets can’t sustain their 15-5 start for another five months.

Much of what could go wrong with the Nationals’ season already has. Their offense has been inconsistent, hampered by the early injuries to Denard Span, Jayson Werth and Anthony Rendon, who couldn’t even play in his rehab game Monday with Class AA Harrisburg because of his knee. And even though Span and Werth are back, they are rusty. Ryan Zimmerman, battling plantar fasciitis that may bug him all season, hasn’t helped much. Neither have Danny Espinosa or Dan Uggla.

The defense leads the majors with 22 errors, a continuation of their unsteady spring, which bugs Manager Matt Williams immensely. Even as the defense seemed to improve a bit this past week, mistakes reemerged at the worst time. The bullpen is dealing with injuries, inexperience, unclear roles and ineffectiveness with the game on the line. Even when

Casey Janssen returns, the bullpen will still face questions. The starting pitching has been good — 3.78 ERA, 10th best in the majors — but not dominant enough to patch up all the other issues. Jordan Zimmermann, Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and Doug Fister haven’t been as effective as they can be.

Great teams shouldn’t go 7-13. That’s the whole point of elite starting pitching. On a nightly basis over 20 games — heck, even six games — the better starter should lead the way. That hasn’t happened for the Nationals. All that could neutralize a talented team — pitching mistakes, rough defense, hitting slumps, shaky bullpen, the effects of past injuries — is happening at once.

Good teams, however, have endured 7-13 stretches before and turned out fine. The Nationals went 7-13 from May 6-28 last season, and then went 71-39 to make up for it and win the division. What helped them overcome that 7-13 slump was a 18-14 start and the fact the Braves started falling. The Giants, the eventual World Series champions last season, went 5-15 from mid-June to early July.

Maybe this slump will temper some of the sky-high expectations for this team and that could be a good thing. It is only April, after all. The Nationals should be a better team than the Mets. Those freaking out over the Nationals’ slow start probably thought that gap between the two teams was massive. The Nationals have proven over the past four years that they, for some reason, perform their best during the second half of the season. But they must keep the deficit manageable.

The Nationals need not stress yet about their eight-game division hole. They need to take control of their series against the Braves first, and then move on to the next one. For now, panic shouldn’t be the emotion.

James Wagner joined the Post in August 2010 and, prior to covering the Nationals, covered high school sports across the region.

Source: www.washingtonpost.com

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