ATLANTA — The time-tested mantra of "It's still early" can be trotted out a little while longer, but its days are numbered. With the calendar about to shift to May, the Nationals have now played one-sixth of the 2013 season, and they haven't played much of it all that well.
Tuesday night's 8-1 drubbing at the hands of the Braves was the most recent, and perhaps ugliest, example. It concluded a frustrating April for the Nationals with a 13-14 record, and it left just about everyone at a loss for words.
"Do we have to talk about this one?" manager Davey Johnson joked as he opened his postgame media session.
Whether or not they felt like dissecting their third straight loss in public, the Nationals were perhaps preparing to discuss it in private, with Ian Desmond going around the clubhouse afterward telling teammates not to leave, a fairly obvious sign of an impending team meeting.
Can this ballclub, odds-on World Series favorites only one month ago, turn things around in a hurry?
"I feel like we can, we're just not," Desmond said. "I mean, everyone's trying to do better for the team, but I feel like you have to put yourself aside and start playing for the team. You know what I mean? We've got to throw the ball over the plate, we've got to hit strikes and we've got to field the ball. That's what it boils down to. It's not about what your numbers are in April, it's not about what the record is in April. But at some point, you've got to gel as a team and start playing as a team."
That's perhaps the best analysis of the Nationals to date, an immensely talented team that just didn't play like a very good team enough during the season's first month. Individuals might have a good night, but collectively the Nats have put it all together only a handful of times to date.
They certainly haven't put it together at all against the Braves this season, having lost all five head-to-head encounters. (The losing streak actually extends to nine when you go back to the final month of 2012.)
"They're a hell of a team," Bryce Harper said. "They're raking right now. They're pitching well. ... They're playing well. You just gotta tip your cap to them."
The biggest victim of that potent Atlanta roster on Tuesday night was Gio Gonzalez, who took a beating despite occasionally looking dominant himself. Over four wild innings, the left-hander gave up five runs on seven hits, walking five yet somehow striking out nine. Of the nine balls the Braves put into play, seven landed for hits.
All of this left Gonzalez baffled.
"You either attack the strike zone or you don't," he said. "You get nine on strikeouts and then five walks. Then they make some good contact, then they have some broken-bat hits. Just one of those games you just can't explain. When it's their game, it's their game."
At the other end of the spectrum was Tim Hudson, longtime nemesis of the Nationals, tossing yet another gem against them. The 37-year-old carried a no-hitter into the fifth, homered himself later that inning and then departed after the seventh having allowed only three hits.
Thus Hudson earned the 200th win of his career, 16 of them coming against the Nats/Expos, the most he's recorded against any MLB franchise.
"That's kind of the best I've seen him," Johnson said. "He used all his pitches, as usual. He made a lot of good pitches. He was very predictable: He'd give you something soft away, hard in. He pitched a heck of a ballgame."
And so the Nationals end April a disappointing 13-14. It's their first losing month since August 2011, shortly after Johnson took over as manager.
They're by no means out of it, trailing the Braves by 4 1/2 games and still in second place in the NL East with five long months to go.
But they also recognize it's not going to be "early" much longer, and the time to get their act together is now.
"I think everyone knows it," Desmond said. "But we want to win so bad and everyone wants to do their best, that it just takes time. This game humbles you no matter who you are. It humbles the best teams. It humbles the worst teams at some point during the year. Unfortunately for us, we're going through it right now, but we'll bounce back."