PHILADELPHIA -- After losing to the Phillies on Monday, Nationals shortstop Ian Desmond went to manager Davey Johnson and said the team wasn't playing as loose as it did last year.
A year ago, the Nationals were 41-29 after 70 games before they went on to win their first division title. Entering Wednesday's action, the Nationals are 34-36, seven games behind the Braves in the National League East.
Desmond said it's hard to let go of the past. It's almost like they are trying to recapture what happened with the team last year. Desmond believes the Nationals have a better team this year than last.
"We are not necessarily running into trouble," Desmond said. "But we are trying to force the things on ourselves that we did last year, instead of going out and playing the game that we know how to play this year. We are not getting ourselves a chance to become the 2013 Nats. ... We have to give ourselves some time to breathe and start anew."
Outfielder Jayson Werth said Desmond is on to something.
"Maybe, we've kind of lacked an identity as a team," Werth said. "As you start winning games, start playing and you go on a roll, you rally or whatever it is that you do, you kind of create your own identity. We haven't hit stride, as far as that goes. How many times have we rallied this year? How many winning streaks have we had? We just haven't hit stride yet. Hopefully soon. It's not for a lack of effort or lack of caring. Guys in here work hard, want to win and play hard. It just hasn't lined up for us."
Johnson pointed out to Desmond that the team is young and still trying to find its way. Johnson used the current bench as an example. Chad Tracy and Roger Bernadina are the only veterans on the bench. The rest of the players on the bench are first or second-year players.
It also doesn't help that the Nationals are without outfielder Bryce Harper and catcher Wilson Ramos, who are on the disabled list. Without them, the Nationals are near the bottom in almost every offensive category.
"Bryce is a very talented baseball player and he is a key part of our team," Desmond said. "But what we have is enough. We've played and we've proven that the guys that are here are capable big leaguers. It will all come together."
Despite being tied with the Phillies for second place in the division, Johnson is optimistic that the Nationals can turn things around.
"We struggled, but there is [a lot] of the season ahead of us," Johnson said. "Sometimes, I [think] everything happens for a reason. I think this is a good struggle and we are going to come back.
"We have some awfully young guys off the bench. They have to go through the experience. That's part of it. But I'll think we'll be fine and play loose -- free and easy. The offense will pick up.
"I like the talent level. Sometimes … we try to do too much," Johnson said. "A lot of guys are trying to make their mark in the big leagues, trying to get established up here. It's part of what you go through.
"Last year, some young guys came up and played very well. Harper came up, Tyler Moore, [Steve] Lombardozzi. This year, there were some injuries. … [The team is] learning that other clubs are looking at you differently and they pitch you a little differently and you have to make adjustments. That's part of it."
Bill Ladson is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, All Nats All the Time. He also could be found on Twitter @WashingNats. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.