Nats lineup struggling without Zimmerman
Baseball is a sport that requires patience. It requires an even-keeled approach. You can't get too high when things are going well. You can't get too low when things aren't.
The Nationals excelled in this department last season en route to an MLB-best 98 wins, and they've tried to stress the same approach during the early stages of this highly anticipated season. But there comes a time when frustration starts to boil over, and Davey Johnson appeared to reach that stage Tuesday night following a 2-0 loss to the Cardinals that dropped his team to the .500 mark.
"I'm usually pretty patient, but I'm getting to my rope's end," the 70-year-old manager said. "The effort's there, but we're just not getting it done. We've got the players who can get it done, we're just not getting it done. It's time to get a little mad."
Time to get mad? Twenty games into a 162-game marathon? That may seem a bit premature, but the way his team is slumping at the plate right now, it's tough to blame Johnson for being frustrated.
Tuesday's shutout loss was the Nationals' second in three days. They've scored two total runs over their last 27 innings, resulting in three straight losses. As a team, they're hitting .236, reaching base at a clip of only .301.
The Nationals are without Ryan Zimmerman and Wilson Ramos at the moment, and the loss of Zimmerman to a hamstring strain is having a significant effect on offensive output. Adam LaRoche has been forced to hit cleanup, and the veteran first baseman finds himself mired in a big-time slump: 0 for his last 10 with seven strikeouts, four of them coming during Tuesday's loss.
"Needless to say, they had my number tonight," LaRoche said. "Punched out four times and left 100 guys on base, so bad timing. All of it, with what we're going through."
LaRoche's struggles, combined with Zimmerman's DL stint, have a domino effect on the one guy who has been a true offensive threat since Opening Day: Bryce Harper. Not wanting to let Harper beat them in a key spot in the sixth inning — two on, two out — the Cardinals pitched around the 20-year-old slugger and took their chances instead with LaRoche.
"Right there I felt like pitching him tough," said right-hander Adam Wainwright, who hadn't issued a walk this season prior to that point. "Even though I'm loading the bases for a tough hitter in LaRoche, Bryce Harper can hurt you in a lot of different ways. Even though I knew I could make a pitch to get him out, I was smart about it. When you load the bases, you got a lot of different ways to get an out."
Wainwright took the simplest route: He struck out LaRoche on a 2-2 fastball.
The Nationals had a couple more chances against Wainwright and closer Edward Mujica, who recorded the final two outs, but none as promising as that sixth-inning rally. By night's end, all they could do was sulk over another poor offensive performance and try to figure out how best to snap out of it.
"You like to look at it as it's only 20 games," catcher Kurt Suzuki said. "But at the same time, every game's important. ... Some guys might need to get a fire lit under them to get it going a little bit. We've just got to stay with the process, not panic too much and not read too much into how things are going."
Around the clubhouse, there didn't appear to be much support for Johnson's "get mad" strategy.
"I understand why it would be so frustrating for us, and it would be easy to turn that way and just get pissed off at everything," second baseman Danny Espinosa said. "But what's that going to do? It's going to put added pressure on every single guy in the clubhouse to try to do more, try to get outside of their game. You're just putting too much pressure on every single guy. If we just stay with what we're doing, it's going to turn our way."
Johnson may not give everyone from his regular lineup the opportunity to get things going back in the right direction. He suggested some changes for Wednesday afternoon's series finale. With left-hander Jaime Garcia on the mound for St. Louis, Tyler Moore could get the start at first base in LaRoche's place. Steve Lombardozzi (10-for-28 on the season) could find his way into the lineup as well, as could backup catcher Jhonatan Solano (who has yet to start since joining the club when Ramos landed on the DL).
At the same time, the Nationals will be careful not to hit the panic button quite yet. Yes, they're hitting .236 with a .301 on-base percentage and 74 runs scored. But guess what their offensive stats through 20 games last season were? A .231 average, .309 on-base percentage and 71 runs scored.
Things turned around in 2012. The odds of a similar surge in 2013 seem strong.
"We're all winners in here, and we hate losing," Suzuki said. "That part stinks. For me, I try to look at the positives. Our pitching staff is throwing the crap out of the ball. Everybody's pounding the strike zone, pitching like they're capable of. Now we just have to score runs. Take it little-by-little, day-by-day, and slowly improve. And once we hit on all cylinders, we're going to be tough to beat."