Saturday, April 30, 2011, 7:11 p.m.
Updated at 9:39 p.m.By Mark Zuckerman
The gut punch came 75 minutes before first pitch at Nationals Park, when the home clubhouse doors closed for a brief meeting in which the entire team was informed Ryan Zimmerman will have surgery Tuesday to repair a torn abdominal muscle.
The knockout blow came four hours later when the Nationals trudged off the field following a 2-1 loss to the Giants that was as inexplicable as any they had experienced in a long time. Despite putting 14 men on base -- 12 via walk or hit batter -- their moribund lineup could not push more than one run across the plate.
Which led to a stark realization back in that clubhouse at the end of a demoralizing Saturday afternoon: Somehow, this team that seems to get a quality pitching performance every time it takes the field has to figure out some way to increase its offensive production, with the "Face of the Franchise" sidelined for at least another six weeks.
"It's hard to lose your best player, regardless," first baseman Adam LaRoche said. "It's great having him around now, but it's killing him not to be out there. And it hurts. But there's nothing we can do about it. The best thing we can do is wish him the best and hope he recovers sooner than expected and go on and try to win some games."
That the Nationals have managed to stay competitive in Zimmerman's absence -- they're now 9-9 since he last played, 12-14 overall -- is testament to the consistently strong pitching they've been getting all season. Members of the rotation have now allowed three earned runs or fewer in 20 of 26 games this year.
John Lannan continued that trend Saturday with 6 23 innings of two-run ball, though the left-hander beat himself up afterward for allowing that second run to score (via a bases-loaded walk to Aubrey Huff in the top of the seventh).
"We had chances to stay in that ballgame, and I had my chance to kind of keep us right there," Lannan said. "And I blew it with Huff. I pitched too well to let the game be decided on that walk. ... That's one that's going to haunt me."
Lannan might never have been in position to issue that walk, though, had manager Jim Riggleman decided to pull his starter one batter earlier and bring in right-hander Tyler Clippard to face light-hitting catcher Eli Whiteside. Instead, Riggleman had Lannan intentionally walk Whiteside (who homered earlier but is a career .232 hitter) to bring up Huff (a career .281 hitter and seventh-place finisher in last year's NL MVP vote) with the bases loaded.
Riggleman admitted afterward he tried to put his starter in a position to earn the win, a mistake on his part.
"It didn't work," the manager said. "The right decision to make was to just bring Clippard in, and that's the end of that. Whether Clippard gets him or not, that's the way we go with that. I should have done that. That's one that's on me."
Of course, all of this could have been moot had the Nationals simply taken advantage of Giants starter Jonathan Sanchez's stunning disregard for the strike zone early in the game. The left-hander, a key member of last season's World Series-winning rotation, either walked or hit seven of the game's first 10 batters.
Yet the Nationals pushed across only one run during that span, on Rick Ankiel's bloop single with the bases loaded. It was an epic display of offensive futility that proved historic by day's end.
According to baseball-reference.com, no team in the live ball era (since 1919) had ever drawn at least nine walks and been hit by pitch at least three times and failed to score two runs.
"It sucks," said LaRoche, who struck out with the bases loaded to end the game. "Another outstanding pitching performance. We had opportunities -- me in particular a couple times -- and didn't come up with anything."
This wasn't a one-time fluke, though. The Nationals have struggled to score runs all season, with or without Zimmerman. They now own a collective .226 batting average, second-worst in the majors ahead of only the Padres. Six of the eight regular members of the lineup (all but Zimmerman and rookie catcher Wilson Ramos, hitting .358) own batting averages of .239 or worse.
"Our guys are pushing and working and doing everything they can to get it going and just trying to have a quality at-bat," Riggleman said. "A lot of professional hitters. We've got a lot of guys who have got a lot of time in the league and are professional hitters. We're just going to have to come out of it."
Even the veterans, though, admit they may be pressing right now, trying too hard to make something good happen.
"The harder you try in this game, the harder it is," said LaRoche, now hitting .193. "I'm convinced. You go out there and you start thinking about a ton of different things and different situations, and it doesn't make it any easier."
How do you combat that urge to try harder?
"That's the million-dollar question," LaRoche said. "What do we do to get out of it? You've got to relax. You've got to get some breaks, and all of sudden it starts falling your way."
Trouble is, the Nationals caught an incredibly bad break Saturday with the news of Zimmerman's pending surgery and prolonged stint on the DL. They can't count on him to rescue this slumping lineup, at least not until mid-June at the earliest.
General manager Mike Rizzo suggested he'll stick with the veteran duo of Jerry Hairston and Alex Cora that has been filling in at third base in Zimmerman's absence. Not that there are any real enticing options elsewhere, particularly at Class AAA Syracuse, where the Chiefs are currently hitting .216 as a team.
"Obviously when you take your best hitter out of the lineup, you're going to have to find different ways to score runs," Rizzo said before Saturday's game. "Nobody's going to feel sorry for us. We've got a game today, we're going to continue to play without Ryan. He's a huge part of our ballclub, but we're going to have to find ways to win games without him."
The Nationals have somehow managed to win a fair share of games without Zimmerman and without much of any offensive contributions from their entire lineup.
But to think they can continue to hit at these levels and sustain a near-.500 record for the next six-plus weeks is exceedingly optimistic.
The only way this club is going to be able to keep its head above water until Zimmerman returns is if several of those lineup veterans stop pressing at the plate and start hitting the way most of them have throughout their careers.
Mark Zuckerman also blogs about the Nationals at natsinsider.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @MarkZuckerman.