Consistency, something that has been seriously lacking from the Washington Nationals this season, is something they must find if they hope to catch the Atlanta Braves to win the NL East again this season. This team seems to take two steps forward, three back and two more forward. They continue to flirt with a winning streak but haven’t been able to put together a solid week’s performance this season. It has been a bad pitching assignment one night, or a lack of hitting another that stops their momentum.
The starting pitching this year has been solid for the most part, led by Jordan Zimmerman (11-3) 2.28 ERA, potentially the starter for the All Star Game next week. Gio Gonzalez has continued to deliver great performances but hasn’t gotten the support for his record to show it. Gio went 2-0 in the month of June, delivering six performances of at least six innings with an ERA of 2.16 in that span. Brilliant stuff that the bullpen and the bats just couldn’t help get a few more wins. Stephen Strasburg coming off a stint on the disabled list went 1-1 in the month of June, with an ERA of 1.89 during his three outings. It’s a bad sign when as a team almost to the All Star break, the pitcher with the second highest wins on the team is a reliever in Tyler Clippard at five wins.
The big black hole on the staff has been the pitching of Dan Haren (4-9) 6.15 ERA, who recently ended up on the disabled list with a strained throwing shoulder. The recovery from this injury will go a long way to determine how the back end of the rotation helps carry the team. The positive performance of several of the relievers recently called up from the minors, including Ross Ohlendorf, Ian Krol, and Fernando Abad has given the team hope that if Haren is not able to recover there will be teammates that can fill the void.
The bigger problem facing the Nationals is their lack of timely hitting which has been compounded by injuries. As many as four starters have been on the disabled list at the same time this season, so a challenge for consistency is understandable. Bryce Harper, Jayson Werth, Danny Espinosa, and Wilson Ramos have all spent time recovering from injuries, costing the Nationals significant at bats in key games. The injuries still do not account for having a team batting average that is third worst in Major League Baseball, sitting just in front of the New York Mets and Miami Marlins.
If this team hopes to get back to winning consistently, they need to reduce the high strikeout count (7.92 per game) and put the ball in play. Losing almost a third of your outs in each game without putting the ball in play leaves you struggling to move runners over when they actually get on base. Almost every other offensive stat has the Nationals sitting close to the bottom of the league, 29th in Runs Scored, 28th in Hits, and 27th in at bats. I keep hearing that it’s because the Nationals have streaky hitters, that Adam Laroche, Jayson Werth and Ryan Zimmerman are all better second half hitters, that the bats will come alive after the All Star Game. That’s nice if it’s true but everything I have seen so far makes me wonder if the amazing performances we saw last year was a team reaching beyond its norm and this is more what the team is made of.
The switch from Danny Espinosa to Anthony Rendon has been a major surprise and seems to be paying early dividends with Rendon batting above .300 with ten doubles so far. Espinosa, as popular as he has been with the coaching staff, just has not been able to deliver, averaging almost a strikeout per game while batting .158.
Denard Span was brought in to be the prototypical leadoff man, the guy that gets on base, steals bases, and provides the hitters behind him with extra opportunities for RBIs. So far he has an On Base Percentage about one hundred points lower than where you would expect a leadoff man to be, with only seven stolen bases, and only eighteen extra base hits. This just isn’t getting it done from that spot and considering the move to trade to get him led to the Nationals trading Michael Morse away, it just seems like a move that hasn’t worked out thus far. I enjoy Span’s hustle and how well he plays centerfield but if he doesn’t start getting on base I hope that the Nationals at least give a look to their minor league system to see if someone else can deliver in that spot.
As a fan it’s challenging to watch your team struggle day in and day out to consistently compete. As we near the second half of the season, the Nationals need to find a way to string together six or seven wins in a row coming out of the break. The positions are filled with the best talent they have so barring a significant trade they will have to find a way to start winning these games with the staff that they have. I am not sure what spark it’s going to take to light a fire under this team but I hope Davey Johnson can find it and gets this team moving towards first place and a return to the playoffs.
Robert Peterson lives in the Washington DC Metro area and has been covering the Nationals since the team moved to the area in 2005.