PITTSBURGH — The Nationals have four players who have been All-Stars in their everyday lineup. They have six guys who have at least 20 homers in a big-league season, three who have hit at least .300, six who own career on-base percentages of at least .330.
So common sense suggests this team will start hitting at least a major-league-average level at some point in 2013. That day has not yet come, though, and not even the return of the club's cleanup hitter Friday night could inject life into a lineup that statistically ranks among the majors' worst so far this year.
"We know we can score runs, and we know we will," Ryan Zimmerman said following a 3-1 loss to the Pirates. "It's just part of it. Nobody wants it to happen. Nobody wants to not score runs. But it happens. We just have to keep working and keep showing up every day and going to work and making some adjustments and just moving forward."
Zimmerman's activation off the disabled list Friday was supposed to get the Nationals moving in an upward direction. The absence of the two-time Silver Slugger Award winner over the last 15 days had been noticeable, with Bryce Harper getting little protection behind him in the lineup and thus few good pitches to hit.
But Zimmerman was the Nationals' biggest culprit at the plate in his first game back, striking out in all four of his plate appearances.
"I just didn't play well," the veteran third baseman said, insisting he wasn't rusty after appearing in only one minor-league rehab game before coming off the DL.
Zimmerman was far from alone. The Nationals collectively struck out 14 times against Pirates ace A.J. Burnett and relievers Mark Melancon and Jason Grilli, seven of them on called third strikes. They've now struck out 62 times over their last six games, scoring a total of 11 runs during that span.
"I think we're kind of hitting rock bottom," manager Davey Johnson said in some of his harshest criticism of his lineup so far this season. "We just need to man up. Let's go. Let's start doing things we're capable of doing."
It would be one thing if the Nationals were trotting out unproven hitters on a nightly basis. But seven of their eight regulars have established themselves over the course of at least one major-league season, if not more. And the eighth, Danny Espinosa, averages 20 homers and 34 doubles per season.
While that helps bring comfort to the clubhouse and reason to remain confident things will turn eventually, it doesn't remove the sting currently being felt from a team that knows it should be better than this.
"We went through this for a lot of [last] year," first baseman Adam LaRoche said. "It seemed like we were not doing a ton offensively, but winning those ballgames. We'd win 2-1, 3-1, and not do a ton at the plate. So right now, it's magnified. We're not hitting and we're giving up more than we're scoring. So the results aren't good. But we've got a good lineup. It'll come around."
The overall lack of offense has put pressure on the Nationals' pitching staff and defense to perform flawlessly, something neither unit could do Friday night.
Ross Detwiler didn't pitch terribly — three runs allowed over five-plus innings — but he didn't pitch up to his usual standard, and he made a couple of big mistakes that resulted in home runs, accounting for all three of Pittsburgh's runs.
Detwiler's first such mistake, a 2-1 fastball to Andrew McCutchen in the bottom of the first, was forgivable. Nobody on the Nationals' pitching staff has figured out a way to retire McCutchen, who in 24 career games against Washington now sports a .456 batting average, 11 homers, 22 RBI and an unfathomable 1.457 OPS.
"He's not going to hit a home run every time, but it almost seems like against us he does," Detwiler bemoaned. "You just have to focus on keeping the ball down, don't let him lift the ball at all."
Detwiler's costlier mistake came four innings later, though only after a defensive miscue set the stage for it. With two outs, Detwiler caught Starling Marte breaking for second base too soon. The left-hander fired a pickoff throw to LaRoche, who had plenty of time to make an easy throw to second and retire Marte. Except the ball got stuck in LaRoche's glove, and he never managed to even get the throw off.
"It's a high, slow leg kick [from Detwiler]," LaRoche said. "I know how fast [Marte] is, and I've got one shot at it. And that's the only negative of having a big glove: Times like that where I go in to get it, can't find it for a split second. It can cost you when a guy can fly on the bases."
This one really cost the Nationals, because moments later Detwiler grooved a 2-0 fastball to the previously unknown Jordy Mercer. The 26-year-old second baseman, promoted from Class AAA earlier in the day when the Pirates placed Neil Walker on the DL, turned on the pitch and sent it flying into the left-field bleachers for the two-run homer that proved the difference in this game.
"Just two pitches," Detwiler said. "It was kind of weird, they were the same exact pitch. I tried to throw a fastball away, I cut it a little bit, it goes right over the middle of the plate and they're paid to hit them."
Johnson gave Detwiler a surprisingly quick hook after he walked the leadoff man in the sixth. But the way the Nationals are swinging the bat, the 70-year-old manager couldn't afford to risk his team falling into a deeper hole.
They never did climb back from the two-run deficit, though, with Harper striking out with two men on in the eighth and then Zimmerman, Tyler Moore and Espinosa all striking out in the ninth to bring a frustrating end to a frustrating game.
They'll try to right the ship Saturday afternoon, hoping this group of talented and mostly proven hitters can finally get things together and do what everyone expected it to do all along.
"There's not a whole lot of changes I can make," Johnson said. "We've got the right guys. We've just got to start doing a better job. It's simple as that."