PITTSBURGH — The Washington Nationals, a team that only two months ago headed north from Florida with a loaded roster and the loftiest of expectations, fielded a lineup Friday night that featured one player with a batting average over .277. And that was their pitcher.
Their cleanup man was hitting .182. The highest batting average among their 6, 7 and 8 hitters was .179. Those three players have combined for six RBI.
So, in one respect, the real surprise isn’t the fact a team without Bryce Harper, Ryan Zimmerman and Adam LaRoche is currently a .500 club, but the fact its record isn’t even worse.
“There’s no question we want to have those guys back,” center fielder Denard Span said. “But once 7 o’clock starts, I’m not thinking about that. We’ve got to find a way to win. That’s why there’s a 40-man roster. Guys have got to pull up some slack.”
Trouble is, guys aren’t picking up the slack. They certainly weren’t Friday night during another frustrating loss, this one by a 4-3 margin to the Pirates. Those aforementioned 6-7-8 hitters — Greg Dobbs, Zach Walters and Nate McLouth — went a combined 1-for-8 with four strikeouts.
It’s not fair to place blame on three players who weren’t supposed to find themselves in this situation — Dobbs and Walters weren’t even on the Opening Day roster — but the Nationals have no choice right now but to ask them to deliver in key spots at the plate. And the results have been all too predictable.
When a team goes 1-for-9 with runners in scoring position and needed a bloop single to snap an 0-for-25, 3-day skid in that department, it’s awfully hard not to wonder if things would be different if any (or all) of the injured stars were in the lineup instead of on the DL. Much as the Nationals’ manager tries.
“I’m not gonna even think about going there, because it’s not fair to the guys that are in here right now that are busting their tails every day to get this job done,” Matt Williams said. “We certainly would welcome and want those guys back as soon as possible. But it’s not fair to that group that sits in that locker room there, to say: ‘Boy, if we had our guys…’ Because they’re busting their fannies. We’ll continue to do that.”
The Nationals appear close to getting at least one of those injured players back, with LaRoche going 1-for-3 with a walk and playing seven innings at Class AA Harrisburg on Friday and emerging healthy. He’s expected to be activated as soon as he becomes eligible Sunday.
But they’ll still be forced to proceed awhile longer without Zimmerman and Harper. And so the pressure will fall on other, healthy regulars to start producing in big spots.
That didn’t happen Friday, and it hasn’t been happening for several weeks. The Nationals are now hitting a collective .212 with runners in scoring position, fifth-worst in the majors, despite ranking 12th in the sport in plate appearances with runners on second or third.
In other words: They’re giving themselves opportunities. They’re just not making the most of them.
“I just think when we get in those situations, we have to just maybe take a deep breath, relax and remember the pitcher on the mound, he’s the one on the ropes,” said Span, who tapped a comebacker with two on and two out in a 1-run game in the eighth. “I’m guilty of it as well. All of us, we just have to bear down a little bit, be selective in those situations. All you can do is put a good swing on the ball and hope that it falls. And right now, it’s just not falling.”
The Nationals certainly could use some more dominant performances out of a rotation that ranks 16th in the majors despite talent that suggests it should rank in the sport’s top 5. To wit: Jordan Zimmermann’s 4-run, 6-inning start on Friday, which could have better just a bit better.
But the biggest reason the Nationals now find themselves the epitome of mediocre — 24-24, 3 1/2 games back in the NL East — is their lack of offensive production when they’ve needed it most.
The return of key injured players surely will help. But until that happens, this team will have to find some way to pick up the slack.
“I think you can point to a lot of things that will contribute to our 24-24 (record),” Williams said. “And it doesn’t deter us in any stretch from being ready to play tomorrow and being ready to play the rest of our games. … I’m not shocked. I’m hopeful and I’m excited and enthusiastic about what’s to come. And that’s all I can say about it.”