MLB.com Columnist

Tracy Ringolsby

Key stretch lies ahead for Nationals

Rizzo: 'We need to play with a sense of urgency'

Key stretch lies ahead for Nationals

DENVER -- Time has begun to slip away, and the Washington Nationals know it.

Widely considered the team to beat in the National League when the season started, they have fallen short of expectations of their own, as well as that of outsiders. There is, however, time for them to get things back in order to overtake the NL East-leading Mets.

There isn't time to waste.

"We need to play with a sense of urgency," general manager Mike Rizzo said. "Nobody is panicking, and nobody should panic, but we need to put together a string of games with a playoff attitude.

"We have enough games left, but sometimes you are good enough as a team to win, but run out of time. We did that in 2013."

Coming off the second postseason appearance in the history of a franchise that began as the Montreal Expos in 1969, the 2013 Nationals spent the first seven days of the season in first place, but remained in second place most of the season.

They were struggling at 60-64 in mid-August, and they wound up finishing 10 games back of Atlanta in the NL East, and four games behind Cincinnati for the second Wild Card.

On Tuesday, the Nats embarked on a 22-game stretch that ostensibly should give them an opportunity to make a move. But can they take advantage of that opportunity?

Richard Justice on The Rundown

The Nationals took care of business with a 15-6 victory over the Rockies in their opener at Coors Field, although they remain 4 1/2 games back in the NL East behind the Mets, who beat the Orioles, 5-3.

Washington's three-game visit to Coors Field represents half of the six games the squad plays on the road in the 22-game, 23-day stretch. The Cardinals are the only team with a winning record that the Nats are scheduled to face before the Mets visit them in the final three-game series of the stretch, Sept. 7-9.

In that same time period, the Mets only have one series against a team that currently has a winning record -- the two-game visit to Baltimore that opened on Tuesday. The Mets play 15 of 21 games on the road. New York has a 22-34 road record -- the worst of any Major League team with a winning record.

In addition to the favorable schedule, the Nationals gain some more good fortune within the next week. Washington could have its lineup together for the first time this season. Left fielder Jayson Werth, center fielder Denard Span, first baseman Ryan Zimmerman and third baseman Anthony Rendon have not all been on the active roster at the same time thus far.

Span's RBI single

The four regulars have logged 231 games on the disabled list, and Span is still sidelined because of back stiffness. Although, Span did begin a rehab assignment on Sunday, and he could return for next week's series against San Diego.

Span (back stiffness and right core muscle surgery), Werth (left wrist contusion and right AC joint surgery) and Rendon (left knee sprain and left quad strain) have had two different stints on the disabled list. Zimmerman was sidelined only once, with left foot plantar fasciitis, but missed 40 games.

"We have not had a chance to get consistency with the lineup," Rizzo said. "There's been no flow."

That alone might explain the .247 team average through the weekend, which ranked 12th in the NL; and the .313 on-base percentage, which ranked 10th.

That also is a reason Werth found himself hitting leadoff on Tuesday night for the first time since 2013, only the third time since 2012, when he came off the disabled list because of a broken left wrist. Known for his willingness to work counts, he responded to the No. 1 spot by getting his stroke back, hitting line drives for singles and doubles.

Werth trots home on wild pitch

Werth is coming off a left wrist injury again this year, and he has struggled, so the Nats decided to give him a chance to hit in the No. 1 spot in light of the absence of Span. By the time Span is activated, the hope is Werth will be back in sync offensively.

"There is reason to be hopeful, but a need to play better," Rizzo said. "We haven't played well the past two weeks."

The Nationals had not only lost six in a row before the win over the Rockies, but even with Tuesday's victory, they are 9-17 in a 28-game stretch that concludes with two more games in Colorado. The stretch has included only seven games at home. Washington was in first place, three games up, before the team embarked on the road-heavy part of the schedule.

"I am confident we have better days ahead," Rizzo said. "We need to put the pedal to the metal, pretend each day is the last day of the season."

The Nats, after all, may still have time to meet those preseason expectations, but time is running short.

Tracy Ringolsby is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Write 'em Cowboy. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.