We don't know yet how long the Nationals will be without Bryce Harper, who is getting a second opinion today on his sprained left thumb. But whether Harper misses the minimum 15 days or significantly more, the Nats do know who needs to step up in his place: Nate McLouth.
Signed in December to a two-year, $10.75 million contract for this very reason, McLouth was brought on board not only to serve as a veteran No. 4 outfielder but to be able to step in and replace any one of the Nationals' three starting outfielders long-term in the event of injury.
Playing time for the 32-year-old has been sparse to date, and that may be one of the reasons behind his significant struggles at the plate. McLouth enters the week with only four hits in 34 at-bats, and until his ninth-inning homer Sunday he had yet to drive in a run since first donning a curly W cap.
"I felt good all day," he said after Sunday's game. "For the most part, I have felt halfway decent. I just wasn't getting any results. It happens sometimes like that. You just can't change your approach. You have to trust your process."
McLouth has battled his way through prolonged slumps before. An All-Star with the Pirates in 2008, he found himself demoted to Class AAA only two years later after hitting .190 over half a season with the Braves.
Despite the ugly numbers so far this season, McLouth insists this stretch is nowhere near as difficult as previous ones.
"What I can tell you is I have felt better than the results have shown," he said. "I've been through times when I've been completely lost at the plate, not seeing the ball. I'm seeing the ball fine. My swing's not where I want it. But for the most part, I'm putting the ball in play. You just can't get frustrated. I'm not frustrated. I've just got to keep with my routine and know that things will turn around."
There is some statistical evidence to suggest McLouth has been the victim of bad luck. His .111 batting average on balls in play is off-the-charts and 166 points off his career mark. At the same time, his strikeout percentage actually is down, and his line-drive rate is right around his career norm.
Regardless of what the stats say, McLouth is trying to maintain an upbeat mental approach to his struggles. Having been through this before, he understands that mounting frustration won't help his cause.
"Absolutely, that makes it worse," he said late last week, before Sunday's homer. "That compounds it if you get frustrated and start trying to change things. It's really just a timing issue. Maybe I can throw out a blooper and get things rolling. Of course it's frustrating, but I'm not getting down or letting it affect me. I come every day and do my routine and trust that it'll turn around and hits will start falling."
McLouth certainly will get plenty of opportunity to get himself going over the next two weeks, possibly more. The Nationals brought him here for this very reason. Now they have to hope he delivers the kind of insurance they figured they'd need at some point this year.
"You try to hold these guys' places down until they get back," McLouth said. "It's unfortunate when guys get hurt, especially the number of guys this month that have gotten hurt and that have gone down. We'll just try to hold it down until they get back."