Nats can't survive high-wire every night

Nats can't survive high-wire every night
April 27, 2012, 1:34 pm
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They've been walking a tightrope for three weeks now, occasionally teetering from side-to-side for a moment or two but always finding their center of gravity just in the nick of time.

Even the best acrobats, though, lose their balance every once in a while. So we shouldn't have been too surprised last night to see the Nationals slip and take a tumble, blowing a late lead to the Padres en route to a 2-1 loss.

Try as they might to defy the odds, you just can't win every single one-run ballgame, especially when you seem to find yourself in those nailbiters five or six times a week.

Thus, the Nationals wasted another superb outing by a member of baseball's best rotation. Edwin Jackson tossed 6 23 innings of scoreless ball, refusing to be the weak link of the bunch, and in the process helping his teammates establish a new, mind-boggling record.

For those who have lost track, that's now eight times a Nationals starting pitcher has allowed zero earned runs in 19 games this season. They're the first rotation in modern history to accomplish that.

Jackson, though, had nothing to show for his effort, because setup man Tyler Clippard (asked by manager Davey Johnson to record four outs) served up the two-run double to Mark Kotsay that determined the outcome of this game.

It's easy to point the finger at Clippard, who did not look sharp last night and hasn't looked particularly sharp at all early this season. But it's hard to place blame for a loss on a pitching staff that gives up only two runs.

How about a Nationals lineup that managed all of four hits off San Diego right-handers Edinson Volquez, Andrew Cashner and Huston Street? This was already the seventh time the Nats have been held to five or fewer hits this season, a disturbing trend.

What's missing from Johnson's lineup? Ryan Zimmerman and Michael Morse. It's tough to score runs when your No. 3 and No. 4 hitters are out with injuries, especially when the replacements for those stalwarts leave so much to be desired.

As nice a job as general manager Mike Rizzo did in adding depth to this roster over the winter and spring, the Nationals' simply don't have adequate replacements for Zimmerman or Morse.

The guy who started at third base (and hit third) last night was Chad Tracy, the veteran infielder who has provided three very clutch hits off the bench already this season but overall is batting .136.

More disturbing is the lack of production from Morse's usual spot. After an 0-for-4 showing last night, Nationals left fielders are now hitting a collective .097 with a .207 on-base percentage and a .125 slugging percentage. That's beyond pathetic.

Look, nobody expects a team to be able to lose a .303-31-95 cleanup hitter for two months and not suffer a bit. But this team simply must get better production out of its left fielders than it's gotten so far.

As bad as that all sounds, the Nationals still woke up this morning alone in first place in the NL East, still boasting the NL's best record heading into a big-time weekend series against the 13-6 Dodgers. That's directly attributable to their pitching staff, specifically a rotation that is doing things right now that have never been done before.

But even the best pitching staff in baseball needs a little run support. The Nationals lineup has managed to cobble together enough far more times this season than it hasn't. But that's not going to get the job done every single night.

Sometimes, you really do need to score more than two runs to win a ballgame. Even though the Nationals have tried on a regular basis this season to disprove that theory.