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Much better, but still not enough

Aug 26, 2013, 6:00 AM EDT

Photo by USA Today AP

The good news for the Nationals on this late-August Monday morning: They’re playing unquestionably their best baseball of the season right now.

The bad news for the Nationals (and their fans): It’s still not going to be enough to make up for the first four-plus months of this underachieving season.

They simply dug themselves too big a hole. Plus, the five NL clubs who have been in position to make the postseason for quite some time now have shown no signs of collapse, the other requirement for a last-ditch pennant race in D.C.

So it’s not entirely the Nationals’ fault. Even with yesterday’s frustrating 6-4 loss in Kansas City, they’ve gone 11-5 since that embarrassing home sweep at the hands of the Braves earlier this month. That’s their best 16-game stretch of the season.

(For comparison’s sake, the 2012 Nationals had 26 stretches in which they went 11-5 or better, going 13-3 in three of those stretches.)

And — in a really glass-half-full way of looking at things — three of their last five losses have come by only one run, two of them in extra innings, and another (yesterday’s loss) in a game that was tied in the bottom of the eighth. These guys are at the very least giving themselves a chance to win every single night.

They’re doing so because of one simple fact: They’re finally producing at the plate the way they were supposed to all along. During this 16-game stretch, the Nationals are hitting a collective .295 with a .369 on-base percentage, scoring an average of 5.6 runs per game.

This sudden offensive surge actually coincides with a slight slip in the team’s quality of pitching. The Nationals’ staff has posted a collective 3.98 ERA during these 16 games, perhaps proving pitching isn’t always everything.

So, who is providing all of the punch? Several players are responsible…

— Bryce Harper just hit .378 (14-for-37) on the Nationals’ 10-game road trip, with a .511 on-base percentage and .622 slugging percentage.

— Denard Span is hitting .329 (23-for-70) over the last 16 games, finally getting on base at a rate befitting the leadoff man on a good team.

— Wilson Ramos is hitting .306 (15-for-49) over those same 16 games, starting 12 of them.

— Jayson Werth, of course, has continued his red-hot stroke at the plate; over his last 62 games, he’s hitting a staggering .380 (81-for-213) with a .469 on-base percentage and .625 slugging percentage.

Can this all keep up? Perhaps not quite at this pace, but it’s not out of the question, either. There’s certainly enough talent in this lineup to average five runs per game over the season’s final five weeks. And the hope is that the pitching numbers would improve slightly, reverting back to the above-average level it sat it for most of the season.

The problem: That still won’t be enough. As nice as this recent stretch has been, and as well as they’ve played, the Nationals have gained a whopping 1/2-game in the NL Wild Card standings.

Yep, while the Nationals have gone 11-5 since August 9, the Reds have gone 11-6.

That underscores just how difficult it was going to be all along for the Nationals to stage a dramatic, late-season surge. They not only needed to start playing at a previously unreached level, they also needed somebody ahead of them in the standings to tank. That hasn’t happened, and it remains highly unlikely to happen.

Before this stretch began, the Nationals had a 1.7 percent chance of reaching the postseason, according to CoolStandings.com. Their odds have increased since then, but only to a 4.1 percent chance of playing in October.

None of this means we should ignore what the Nationals have done over the last two-plus weeks. At a time when they easily could have recognized the hopelessness of the challenge and thrown in the towel, they have refused to give up, have consistently played better baseball and have won a bunch of tough games as a result.

They deserve to be praised. Unfortunately, this is all turning into a classic case of too little, too late.

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