So now we learn that it was the robot throwing out the first pitch, that ruined the karma.
Nationals navigate a narrow road
Washington struggles after habitually winning one-run games
By Tom Singer / MLB.com
For three months, they walked around the Washington Nationals like they walk around a levitating table, wondering, "What's keeping it up?"
How does David Copperfield do it? How did Frank Robinson do it?
Not sure about Copperfield, but with F. Robby it was pure magic. The magic of a cohesive clubhouse, the magic of belief, the elixir of a receptive new town, the intoxicating affect of standing the National League East on its ear.
Baseball fans, in and out of the nation's capital, were under the spell of a scrappy bunch of nameless and faceless gamers who were hustling the big boys with a brand of pure ball that stirred memories of more innocent times.
The Nationals, lengthy and ugly slump notwithstanding, may not yet be out of business. We will now see how much resiliency they bring to the arena.
But for sure they had no business putting up their half-season. Fifty wins. A 4 1/2-game division lead on July 4.
The only thing in which they led the league, according to relief pitcher Joey Eischen, was "karma."
"We all get along," Eischen said during the first week of July. "We all like each other. We all pull for each other. We have a lot of fun together. Winning is about how you play together as a group and how inspired you are. It's all clicking here."
They never did hit or score, but they played the game right and made full use of the proverbial 80 percent of it that is pitching.
Even at that 50-31 halfway mark, the Nationals' scoring edge over opponents was slim, a league-low 335 runs to 333. But they made it work with a handful of 3-2 wins for every 11-1 blowout loss.
These were the Nationals at their confounding best: Nine straight wins in early June while not once allowing more than three runs; ace Livan Hernandez did start two of those, but the other seven were started by five other guys who had combined for 23 wins in 2004.
Then, cruise turned into curse. The Boston Red Sox had the Curse of the Bambino. The Chicago Cubs still have the Curse of the Billy Goat. The Nationals may be feeling the Curse of QRIO.
What took the Red Sox and Cubs decades to nurture, the Nats may have accomplished in one careless moment of marketing: letting QRIO, a midget robot, throw out the ceremonial first pitch prior to the July 6 game at RFK Stadium.
To those in that night's crowd of 38,148, it just didn't feel right, this nuts-and-bolts intrusion on the Nats' developing story of blood-and-guts.
Washington started that game at 51-32, its high-water mark of the season at 19 over .500. It has since dropped 17 of 22 and fallen into second place.
And these have become the Nationals, at their frustrating worst: Their ongoing 4-15 slide includes 10 consecutive one-run losses, in which they have allowed a total of 37 runs.
Prior to this rut, they owned one-run games, going 24-8. Robinson calls it the revenge of "the law of averages" and points out, "We have to kick Mr. Law out of here."
Pop culture makes it difficult to contemplate an underdog Washington club without a "Damn Yankees" reference. At the climax of that Adler-Ross musical, the Joe Hardy character loses his devil-bargained virility just as he's about to make a pennant-clinching catch -- but musters enough energy to glove the ball with a last-gasp lunge.
The Nats weren't that close to the wire when it began to trip them up.
But it has been quite a high-wire act. Their success is beyond the reach of any Sabermetrics formula.
? The Nats have had 137 single-run innings -- versus 17 innings in which they broke out for more than three runs, five of those on one West Coast trip.
? Their total of 73 home runs are 10 fewer than any other team's, and 100 behind MLB-leader Texas.
? Their 13 home runs in July trailed only ... Jason Giambi, who had 14.
? Washington's record when its stressed pitchers allow four-plus runs is 12-38; four runs is hardly the deep end for the typically balanced team.
But none of those trends represents a downturn. It is the way the Nats have done things all season. They had overcome their limitations. More recently, they have been overcome by them.
"We just can't get that hit," Ryan Church, the rookie outfielder, says. "It's like we have a disease: Can't Get Them in from Scoring Position Disease.
"It can't be like this forever. It just can't be. We did it in the first half. So why can't we do it now?"
"Something is missing," Robinson concedes. "Whatever it is, we've got to try to figure out what is it. But this is not the same ball club that played most of the first half."
There is good news. Thirty-one of the Nationals' final 57 games are in RFK Stadium, their fortress (30-11) before seven losses in the last nine home games, before they became more concerned about the power alleys than the power of positive thinking.
It was only four months ago that this band alit in D.C. on an incredible high.
"Change of scenery" is one of baseball's venerable intangibles, applied to players' chances of reviving stalled careers amid new surroundings. The ex-Expos tuned up for a team-wide riff on the concept by promising -- still promising -- the most successful relocation season in history.
MLB franchises seldom move, never to glory. Ten previously shifted teams, from the 1953 Milwaukee Braves to the 1972 Texas Rangers, averaged 86 losses in their inaugural seasons in the new city. Five lost 90-plus. None were in first place on July 4.
Since, the Nationals have been just good enough to drive themselves nuts with a string of tight losses. They have to remind themselves when they were good enough, period.
They need a vocal leader, someone a bit more their peer than the 69-year-old Robinson. The obvious choice is franchise-elder Jose Vidro, in his ninth season. But Vidro only recently returned from a two-month absence with an ankle injury. And there is also this: A dozen of the current Nationals never wore a Montreal uniform; this is an overhauled crew.
Jose Guillen leads at bat and sounds willing to lead in the clubhouse, too. He seems to have a good read on the situation:
"I think maybe everybody was satisfied with the first half. It's going to be a big disappointment for the fans and the staff and the front office if we keep playing like this."
And if they don't, it could still end in a big disappointment for the rest of the NL East. The Nats' challenge is to resume manufacturing close wins, not close calls.
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.