Baseball doesn't have sure things, but the 2015 Nationals were seemingly about as close as a club could come to one.
You know, the same Nats who are now a game under .500 and 4 1/2 back in the National League East.
This club won 96 games last year in a division in which no other teams finished with a winning record, then got demonstrably better over the offseason in adding the free-agent market's most highly prized pitching piece (Max Scherzer) to an already terrific rotation. Bryce Harper showed up to Spring Training camp asking, "Where's my ring?" And even if you didn't appreciate the brashness of the message, you could at least understand the sentiment behind it. The Nationals were given a 79 percent chance of winning the NL East by Baseball Prospectus. They were veritable locks.
Even as recently as 2 1/2 weeks ago, we had little reason to doubt the Nats, despite being riddled with injuries all year, would claim their second straight division crown. But their recent tailspin has directly coincided with the Mets' Trade Deadline-aided upswing, and so Washington's division chances are now 19.8 percent.
That's not all. The Nationals have also seen the Wild Card cushion totally ripped out from under them by the surging Cubs. Trailing the second Wild Card spot by 9 1/2 games, it could very well be that the Nats' only hope of an October entry is to overtake the Mets -- a team they'll face six more times (Sept. 7-9 and Oct. 2-4).
If that's going to happen, these five things must happen:
1. A Denard Span spark
Span had a slight setback last week when his recovery from a back issue was ramped up to include live batting practice, but he was cleared to begin a rehab assignment at Class A Potomac on Sunday night. It was the most welcomed news the Nationals had received in a while.
Span is not the only reason the Nats were 35-24 with him in the lineup, but he was a big one. His absence has weakened both the leadoff spot and the bench, and among the myriad position players who have missed considerable time due to injuries (Anthony Rendon, Jayson Werth, Ryan Zimmerman), Span's the only one to have performed at a level above that of the league average when on the field this year.
After beginning the season on the DL following two offseason core surgeries, Span had a .304 average and a .367 on-base percentage in 59 games before going back on the DL on July 10.
2. Straightening out Drew Storen
Some people point to Storen's epic struggles, which include 10 runs allowed over 3 2/3 innings in his last four appearances, as reason to criticize the Jonathan Papelbon addition. The working theory is that Storen is so mentally fraught from losing his ninth-inning role that he's completely unraveled.
Video: COL@WAS: Williams talks Storen's struggles
Maybe that's true. Or maybe this frazzled mental state only further validates Washington's decision to find another option for the ninth. Or maybe Storen was due to regress either way.
All we know for sure is that the Nationals can't carry on this way and expect to climb back into contention. There are undoubtedly other issues with this pitching staff (the rotation hasn't been as bankable a commodity as expected) and with this bullpen, in particular. But getting Storen back on track is essential. Per Brooks Baseball, Storen's four-seamer has been middle of the plate and up with much greater frequency this much.
3. Jayson proving his Werth
Referring to the Nats' newfound division deficit, Werth told Yahoo! Sports last week, "It's easier to chase than to be chased." The trouble with Washington's chase is that it's heavily tied to an outfielder who has had shoulder surgery and two small wrist fractures in the last eight months. On its own, either of those medical issues can sap your slugging percentage. Combining them and Werth's age (36) makes a late-season surge all the more difficult.
But Werth has told reporters that he feels physically fine since his recent return from the wrist woes, and, true to form, he's been grinding out longish at-bats (4.29 pitches per plate appearance). But with less than 100 plate appearances to his name since that return, you could say he's still in a sort-of Spring Training evaluative state, which is obviously not ideal for a club in a pennant push. Matt Williams, who has come under increased scrutiny in this stretch, had little choice but to bench Werth for one game in San Francisco and to move him down in the order, but -- again, because of the Span injury -- the outfield options aren't extraordinary, and it's not as if the Nationals are overloaded with candidates to hit in the No. 5 spot of the lineup these days.
Video: WSH@LAD: Werth's two-run double pads Nationals' lead
Bottom line is that the Nats aren't going to surge back up the standings without Werth's timing and power coming back.
4. Middle-infield production
Even Harper had trouble fathoming how far Ian Desmond hit a solo shot off the Giants' Jake Peavy on Friday.
Video: WSH@SF: Desmond crushes a solo homer, adds to lead
That might have been the most encouraging swing of this lost season for Desmond, and his August stat line (16-for-54 with four homers, two doubles and five walks) could be an indication that he's going to make the most of these waning weeks before free agency.
Of course, Desmond has had other "encouraging" signs that proved not to have staying power here in 2015, so the Nationals can't be afraid to test out other options if things go south again. That could mean more of Danny Espinosa down the stretch, and we can't totally rule out the possibility of Trea Turner being added to the 40-man roster and getting a September look.
But for the Nats to be at their absolute best, Desmond and second baseman Rendon have to step up.
For Rendon, the encouraging signs have been even fewer and further between since his second activation from the DL this season, on July 25. He's got a sub-.600 OPS in that span and here, too, is another reason why Espinosa might receive more starts down the stretch. Rendon hasn't been generating as much hard contact as he did in his breakout 2014, and it could very well be that the knee, oblique and quadriceps issues he's dealt with have all conspired to sap his strength and/or alter his swing. I would worry about Rendon, if the native Texan didn't tell reporters last week, "Y'all worry about y'all selves."
5. Harper's health
The would-be NL MVP Award winner fouled a ball off his left leg Saturday and had to leave the game. Thankfully, X-rays were negative, and Harper was right back in the lineup Sunday.
Harper had his playing time greatly compromised by injuries each of the last two years, so this has been viewed as an important year for him to prove his durability. He battled through lower-body issues earlier this summer, but he's thus far avoided the DL and had an absolute monster of a year at the plate.
Video: WSH@SF: Harper takes foul ball off leg, later exits
Somehow, the major injury epidemic that has pervaded the Nationals' clubhouse has missed Harper, and hopefully that's the case down the stretch.
Because if Harper goes down, you can pretty much dismiss any hope of the Nats climbing back.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince.