The Washington Nationals have had a rough stretch with NL East rivals recently, but the positives of the experience is now they know exactly what they need to do to compete.
The only term I can come up with to describe it is "systematic dissection." It was brutal, it was simplistic and it was just plain horrible to watch. The two rivals identified the Nats weaknesses, exploited them and used them to just pick apart the Nats bit by bit. As a fan viewing it, it was like passing the scene of a horrible accident, but you are unable to turn away. As a Nats player playing these games, it had to be a nightmare to have the Phillies sweep you out of Philadelphia and then have the Marlins no-hit you for seven innings while ceaselessly pounding you with runs after you took two games in a row in the series. It was a savage thing.
Am I happy the Nationals lost? Absolutely not. But the Nationals need to take something away from such experiences, such as the belief that whatever defeats you now will only make you stronger in the future. What the Nationals need to do is stop and analyze these butcher sessions so they can learn more about themselves, rather than turn away and try to forget the first week of May 2011.
These losses come at a good time. A buddy of mine and fellow baseball fiend pointed out to me the other day that 20 percent of the regular season has already been played. In the scheme of a 162-game season, that is a small, but sizable chunk. Team's fates have been decided on less before. So if the Nationals wanted to use these games as a sort of intervention, they have more than enough time still to try and get things right.
The sport of baseball is a lot like a game of pool in some instances. In pool, an individual's talent and skill with a pool cue is important, but the best way to improve one's game on the felt is not self-practice and playing people of equal or lower skill level, but playing players who are better than you. Mistakes will be made and hard knocks will be had, but consciously or not, a player will begin to up their game. You can learn from a better player just by watching them and you can figure out what parts of your game you need to improve. You also can get an idea of what exactly you need to become in order to compete.
Good teams in baseball more often than not know how to break down weaker teams. It is what they do and how they win. It is exactly what the Phillies did to the Nationals in the sweep. Pitchers Livan Hernandez, Jason Marquis and John Lannan are not necessarily world beaters, but they've been to the rodeo a few times before, so they weren't going to be pushovers. However, the Phillies knew the Nationals offense was not hitting, so they did what any good team would do: they simply waited. They showed impeccable patience. They knew that their stable of pitchers would hold off the weak part of the Nationals, and all they would have to do is just keep swinging and the runs would come with little challenge on the other side of the ball. The Marlins did a little of the same. They completely used the Nationals' floundering offense against them. They also hit around the weaker points of the Nationals bullpen.
Believe it or not, it is good in a way. The Nationals now have a blueprint on what they need to fix and what they need to do to get to the level of competition being played at the top of the NL East. Their offense right now needs to vastly improve, as it has been the one thing really holding the team down. The Nationals might have improved defensively, but they are missing the magic and meat of the order that Ryan Zimmerman, Adam Dunn and Josh Willingham produced in 2010. The team needs to decide what they are going to with the weakest links in the bullpen (Chad Gaudin, Brian Broderick and Doug Slaten). The Nationals' outfield is still in flux. Are Michael Morse and Roger Bernadina the right options? The Nationals' bench is probably not as good as advertised. The Nationals' rotation, as good as it has held up in 2011 so far, will probably need some fresh blood too at some point.
While GM Mike Rizzo and the rest of the Think Tank are trying to sell that this team is about to turn the corner, a week like the first one in May against division leaders obviously shows it is not. They are nowhere close to par with a contending team right now. There are still a lot of holes in the Nationals' game, and while you can look at the stats and perhaps deduce that, nothing beats just going on there and watching the evidence on the field.
You can't really take a "State of the Nationals" address from someone in the front office or someone associated with the team, because more than likely that opinion will be blinded by some bias. You won't learn a whole lot of the truth. But a clean beating from a division rival?
There is a whole lot more honesty in that.