The Washington Nationals may win the National League East after leading the past three weeks, but surviving long during the postseason is looking shaky.
The Atlanta Braves, losers of eight straight from July 29-Aug. 6, continued to torment their rival and remain alive in the division chase by taking two of three games and nearly sweeping the Nats Aug. 8-10. It was a series of tight games and mostly good pitching, but Washington continues to underperform in a pressure atmosphere.
The most offensive thing Washington managed was outfielder Bryce Harper dragging his foot across the Braves logo behind home plate before his at bats Aug. 9. Otherwise, runs continue a problem with Ryan Zimmerman injured. Zimmerman isn't the Nats' best player anymore, but he sure seems like their heart and soul.
Washington (63-53) leads Atlanta by 3.5 games entering a series at the New York Mets Aug. 12-14. But this team is not the juggernaut fans expected, thanks to injuries. While Zimmerman is the only regular currently out, the offense just hasn't gained traction.
Harper was supposed to be the next Mickey Mantle. He's hitting .249, and his only big hit -- a walk-off home run against the Mets Aug. 7 -- came after speculation of demoting him to the minors. Harper may be only 21, but aside from becoming savvier with time, he really looks like a .270 hitter with power. That's a good hitter, but not Mantle.
Meanwhile, fellow supposed superstar Stephen Strasburg is also underperforming. Some innings, Strasburg looks like a No. 1 draft pick and a future Hall of Famer. The next, he's clueless. Giving up three two-run homers against Atlanta during the series opener Aug. 8 was pathetic.
Strasburg is 8-10 with a 3.68 ERA. That's bad enough, but what's even more disturbing is he has gone 1-8 with a 5.25 ERA on the road versus 7-2, 2.41 at home. That just shows a lack of concentration.
Can Strasburg really be trusted during a playoff series as one of the top three pitchers? Maybe if it's a home game, but Jordan Zimmermann, Doug Fister and Tanner Roark should be the top three. That means the legend is the bottom of the rotation despite ranking among MLB's strikeout leaders.
Without its two stars performing like ones, Washington won't advance far in October. Atlanta showed that when the pressure is on, Washington isn't responding. It's not winning the small battles for big results. It's players shaking heads and saying it's a long season.
Fortunately for the Nationals, Atlanta is having a subpar season, and the rest of the division isn't that good. Otherwise, Washington would be on the outside of the playoff race. But even if the Nats make it, will they be favored against Milwaukee, St. Louis, Los Angeles, San Francisco or Atlanta? Well, maybe Milwaukee and San Francisco, if Washington has a home-field advantage.
The Nats need to mentally improve, or a pleasant summer will have a sudden fall come the postseason.