The Nats are Holding the Nats Down

I woke up Thursday morning to see the Nationals had lost again last night. I noted that the only run the Nationals were able to score was a solo home run by Adam LaRoche. The good news is that LaRoche seems to be finding himself after a slow start, which is not abnormal for the veteran 1B. It is easy to see what is going on with the Nationals, really, and that is that they simply haven't been scoring a whole heck of a lot of runs. Looking at the Nationals record isn't so discouraging at 22-19. Even during the last stretch of games, the Nationals may have failed to tie the Braves for 1st place, but they aren't exactly losing ground on them either. Having lost 2 of 3 to the Dodgers, and the win last night against the Padres, the Nationals are only half a game back of the 1st place Braves in the NL East. So what is the deal? Why aren't the Nationals killing baseball like everyone thought they would?

In the last several weeks, it has seemed like everything has gone at least slightly askew for the Nationals. To start the season, they kept throwing the ball away, the bullpen would give up the lead, and the starting pitchers (except for Zimmermann) had been hit or miss. Then, you had Ryan Zimmerman hit the disabled list due to a bum hamstring, then Ramos, then Werth, then (it looks like) Ramos again. Just two nights ago, Detwiler's back tightened up, Ramos' hamstring tightened up. We are unsure of Detwiler right now, but Ramos is DL-bound again. Not a good night for the visiting team. Monday, the Nationals won, but a full speed wall impact tossed up questions about Bryce Harper, who returned to the lineup last night. I don't even want to talk about how it looked like Haren was battling a bit of discomfort on Tuesday, a night when he pitched so well, but suffered from a lack of support. The fact that he fought through it and only allowed two runs is great, but still something to look out for. In the Dodgers series, the Nationals seemed to have been somewhat snake bitten.

What else? Well, you can look to the fact that the lineup is so out of whack it is ridiculous. With Werth on the DL, Harper sitting out, and a rotating question mark in the two whole, nothing has been working. Espinosa has been struggling big time, posting a .177/.208/.323 batting line. Espinosa's defense has been nothing short of stellar, but maybe it would be best to place him lower in the batting order to take him out of the limelight a bit. National catchers have been hitting well and displaying patience as my colleague David Huzzard noted, so maybe it is time to stop associating the bottom of the order with catchers and think outside the box. Since Ryan Zimmerman came off the DL, he has been hitting well again, hitting .333/.451/.429 in 12 games. On Monday, Zim drove in 3 of the 6 runs that were scored that night while batting 4th. I have always been a fan of Zim hitting 3rd, but there is no question it should be Harper there now. Without Harper there, you have a gaping hole in the offense and it is harder to set up the offense earlier in games.

The bench hasn't been great either. Chad Tracy, Tyler Moore, and Roger Bernadina have all been struggling to find some consistency this season. All of which are batting below .200 and have been called on to take the place of an injured regular this season. Steve Lombardozzi is the one guy off the bench hitting over the .200 mark, but he is posting a .216/.237/.284 line so far. The long and short of it is that not one of them is getting it done when they are called on. Will they come out of it? I think they will, but with the bench struggling & many guys injured, it is easy to see why there is little in the way of offensive contributions, especially from a bench that was so dependable in 2012.

Then we get to the starting staff. I want to point out that Jordan Zimmermann has been amazing, leading the Nationals staff so far this season and being the one starter who the team has been able to lean on. Ross Detwiler has been good too, but I think he will come down to Earth a bit. That is not to say he will be bad, simply that he will not be as lights out as he has been. The fact that he experienced an issue with his back last night is concerning, as even if he comes down to Earth he is a significant contributor to the team. Gio Gonzalez was inconsistent to start the season, but he seems to have found his way a little bit. Personally, I believe his last 2 starts are more indicative of what to expect, having posted better numbers and working out of tough spots in those instances. In those games, he went 6 and 7 innings and allowed 2 and 0 earned runs. He also struck out 11 total in those 2 games. Gio had experienced some frustration with himself which would affect his pitching, but he seems to be doing a better job of staying within himself. Stephen Strasburg, the Nationals ace, has simply not been pitching like an ace. Overall, the numbers look good and wins are not the best way to measure a pitches success, but being 2-5 on the season has to strike you as a bit odd. His start before the gem in San Diego last night, he was cruising until Ryan Zimmerman tossed the ball away. After the error, the Cubs blasted the game open and Strasburg lost his mound presence. This drew the ire of his manager and the rest of the baseball world. Understandably so, that kind of thing should not affect an ace that much, unless your name is Carlos Zambrano, who is a lunatic. For Gio and Strasburg, Gio and Strasburg have been the biggest enemies. While Gio seems to be settling in more and more, Strasburg needs to get there, hopefully we see that tonight in San Diego.

Finally, you have the bullpen. It seems to me that a majority of the pitchers in the bullpen have come around to being themselves. Soriano has been lights out, just as the Nationals had hoped he would be. In his last 13 games he has allowed no runs and converted 9 saves, which is stellar. Tyler Clippard got off to a slow start, but he seems to have settled in as well. Clippard's last 10 games have seen him throw 9 innings, strike out 10, and allow only 1 run. It is safe to say Clippard seems to be getting back into form. Don't get me started on Duke, he is a lost cause. Henry Rodriguez has even been good, posting a 1.42 ERA and striking out 7 in his last 5 appearances. It seems the bullpen is getting locked in, but Drew Storen has been a hard luck case. Storen has a 4.70 ERA this season, which is not good for a reliever and a guy who has historically been lights out. Advanced stats tell a slightly different story, though, as his FIP is 3.48 and his K/9 is 8.22 and BB/9 is 1.76. These are pretty good numbers, but what stands out is the .360 BABIP. Looking at the big picture, Storen is getting the brunt of the Nationals bad luck. That should equalize, but in the meantime it is a bit tough to see.

Overall, the Nationals are where we expect them to be. Luck has not been on their side in any facet, considering all the injuries and all the goofy statistical abnormalities. A few guys could also stand to take a step back and put things in perspective a bit, but the overarching issue seems to be the Nationals not playing like the Nationals. 3 games over .500 for a team that has nothing going right is impressive, albeit a bit hard to watch at times. They need to buckle down, stop feeling sorry for themselves, stop pressing, and start playing. They are loaded with talent, simply to reaching their own high standards. Maybe the best thing for them to do is just say screw it. Hey, what is the worst that could happen?

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