World Series favourites preseason, what has gone wrong at Washington Nationals?

Widely backed to dominate the National League, Gregg Patton tries to determine how it went so drastically downhill for the Washington Nationals.

The one bright spot is Bryce Harper, who is having a Most Valuable Player-type season, with 31 home runs, 74 runs batted in and an MLB-best 1.093 OPS. That makes the Nationals’s struggles even stranger. Alex Brandon / AP Photo
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Washington is a place of politics, where popularity polls matter and people expect big things from front-runners.

It also is the home of the Nationals, a team that sat atop virtually every preseason poll as the club most likely to rule the National League and win the World Series.

With six weeks to go in the regular season, the Nationals now appear to be the team most likely to shrink shamefully out of sight with bags over their heads.

It is a bit hard to believe that this once-esteemed collection of players has been humbled like a scandalised politician, but it is true.

A 7-15 run from late July to mid-August took them from a narrow lead in the NL East to a spot securely behind the surging New York Mets.

Despite a 4-3 up-tick this past week, it has not got any better for the team, who were six-and-a-half games behind the Mets and a staggering 10 games out of a wild-card spot as of Thursday.

General manager Mike Rizzo recently told the Washington Post: “This is a professional group that knows how to play the game and win.

“We’re going to be judged by what we are at the end of the season, not August.”

True. But things so far have swung wildly off course, beginning with the acclaimed pitching staff.

Gregg Patton: MVP options more clear cut in American League compared to National League

The Nationals had the best record in the NL and the best pitching staff (3.03 earned run average) in the major leagues in 2014, then added free agent and superstar right-hander Max Scherzer to the mix in the off-season.

Scherzer has been the US$210 million (Dh771.4m) man the Nationals hoped for, with a 2.79 ERA and a brilliant 0.93 WHIP. But run support has been a problem, and his record is a middling 11-10. Jordan Zimmermann is decent at 3.54, but he is not as no-hit dominant as he was in 2014.

The rest of the pitchers have fallen off. Doug Fister and his 4.68 ERA has been demoted to the bullpen.

Stephen Strasburg (4.14) has been on the disabled list twice. Gio Gonzalez’s 4.11 ERA and 1.48 WHIP are disturbing.

Washington’s offence has had an equally unsettling year, partly because of injuries. Outfielders Jayson Werth and Denard Span, and infielders Ryan Zimmerman and Anthony Rendon, have missed large portions of the season. The four played together for the first time this season just this week, helping renew hope that the Nationalss could somehow rally past the Mets.

“This line-up we have right now, this is what we wanted all year,” right fielder Bryce Harper told the Associated Press after a win over the San Diego Padres.

Unfortunately, when each has played, he has not helped much. The once-dangerous bats of Desmond, Rendon and Werth have regressed from 2014, and Span has always been an average offensive player.

The only bright spot is Harper, the teenage prospect who has blossomed at 22. Harper is having a Most Valuable Player-type season, with 31 home runs, 74 runs batted in and an MLB-best 1.093 OPS. That makes the Nationals’s struggles even stranger. If you had known before the season began that Harper’s breakout year would be added to the dazzling pitching, you would have projected a 100- to 105-win season for this bunch.

But in the end, as even the Nationals know, in Washington, only results count and second place is the bottom.

Yankees need to calm down over ‘rub-it-in rules’

Carlos Gomez has landed in the eye of more than a few on-field storms, often the result of his own excitable behaviour.

Showboating after home runs. Over-the-top celebrations. Yelling at opposing players.

But even the Houston Astros outfielder could not have anticipated enraging the New York Yankees after he broke one of baseball’s strangest unwritten rules — perhaps one the Yankees made up on their own — this week.

Gomez’s crime? He got mad at himself, thus somehow “disrespecting” the Yankees. In baseball, it is always about context.

The Astros were beating the Yankees 9-0 when Gomez swung hard and popped up a pitch from Chris Capuano. Gomez, frustrated he mis-hit an easy pitch, yelled at himself as he ran towards first base. The Yankees believe you should not do that when you have a nine-run lead because emoting is rubbing it in.

From their bench, several Yankees loudly told Gomez to “play the right way”. He told them to “shut up”. Dugouts emptied, but no contact was made.

Gomez said his display of emotion was self-directed and harmless. The Yankees said Gomez should have exhibited more decorum because, well, I suppose their feelings were hurt that he was not satisfied with a big lead.

Respecting your opponent is a worthy attribute, and baseball has plenty of hoary, don’t-rub-it-in “rules” to loosely enforce the concept.

But if this really was one, it is time to dial back the sensitivity metre and grow up.

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