Photo by Anthony Amobi
After two games where the Nationals could barely get the bats off their shoulders, they came out hammering in the first against struggling hurler Javier Vazquez. Every National made it to the plate in the first, putting seven aboard, and scoring six. Even pitcher Jason Marquis got in on the fun, ripping a double to the left field corner before being gunned down at third trying to stretch it into a triple.
Roger Bernadina lead the game off with a bunt single, just beating out a throw from Greg Dobbs. Jayson Werth would take first on a grounder to the left side that Hanley Ramirez wasn’t able to handle cleanly, and the Nats found themselves with runners on first and second with just one out. This homestand had, so far, been filled with disappointment for runners on base, but the Nats just kept delivering on Sunday afternoon. Laynce Nix stroked a single to shallow left, followed by a walk to Adam LaRoche, and a 2-RBI single by Pudge Rodriguez.
The Marlins wouldn’t get much off Jason Marquis: a pair of unearned runs in the second after an error at third, and then two more in the seventh off the hot bats of Mike Stanton and Greg Dobbs. He pitched out of a few different difficult situations, and benefitted from the strong defense around him. The Nationals have only committed two errors in their last sixteen games, which is especially surprising given that they’re without their golden glove third baseman, Ryan Zimmerman, who isn’t expected back any time soon.
Just two batting order slots didn’t pickup runs today: Danny Espinosa, in the two-slot, and Jason Marquis and the pitcher’s slot. Given that Marquis had a pair of RBIs and went 2-3 with a double and a single, the trouble that Danny Espinosa is experiencing has to be fairly serious. It’s almost enough to wonder if he shouldn’t take a week or two down at Syracuse to find his steady bat that so won over the fans last September.
Adam LaRoche’s defense may have been invaluable today, but his bat has certainly been lackluster the last few weeks. Despite the unassisted double-play that he turned in the 7th, LaRoche saw four more points fall off his batting average as he went 0-3 with a walk and a run. His .188 is a full 73 points of average short of last year, and his OPS is down almost two hundred.
The Nationals finished their 40th game of the year, with a record of 19-21, which is about a quarter of the way through the season. Riggleman said of the first forty, “our record indicates what we are at this point,” which is a team whose starting pitching has really found its niche, but whose silent bats are holding them back. At a quarter of the way through the season, several situations that the Nationals face are somewhat daunting to keep at this near-.500 pace:
The Return of Ryan Zimmerman
For two weeks, the Nationals have been playing without the strong offensive heart of their order, and without his strong arm at third base. His return would be, at the very earliest, in the middle of June, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Nationals wait until he’s absolutely 100% before he’s back on the field for the Nats. Losing Zim for another 20-25 games could be significant. Bringing back a healthy Zimmerman to the order could be the tonic the Nats’ weak offense is looking for.
What about the Shark? And Nix?
Since returning from AAA, Roger Bernadina is hitting .344, with an OBP of .447. Don’t get too excited, Nats fans, that’s a pretty small sample size, but it’s still enough to take notice. He’s lead off each of the last two games with an infield bunt single, and has produced some serious spark in the otherwise absent top of the order. Laynce Nix is on a bit of a tear, going 11-26 this past week with 4 runs, 2 monster bombs and 6 RBI. Mike Morse is currently riding the pine in the wake of his recent success, and Shark is only up because of the injury to Ankiel. What happens when Ankiel gets healthy, or Morse starts to hit off the bench? The Nats are in a position to just play the hot hand, and hope that’s enough to keep you close, but the up/down nature of the team certainly has its pros and cons.
Can they stay close enough?
In five of the last six seasons, the Nats have finished under .500. Each time, once they past the four-games-under marker, they never again returned to even. That Nats have brushed close to the banks of that Rubicon four times this season, and each time have pulled back closer to .500, most recently on the road against Florida, and then again at home against Florida.
The Big Picture
There’s a lot to be happy about, Nats fans. Jason Marquis shares the NL lead in Wins for a pitcher, and each of the other four starters has shown significant progress this season. While Marquis has the only winning record, we’ve seen flashes of genius from Jordan Zimmermann, and some good work from Lannan, Gorzelanny and Livo. The Nationals have every ability to remain a fighting chance from .500 on the season. Recently, some trouble in the bullpen has cost them (and I speak here not of the recently-DFA’d Brian Broderick, but rather of Sean Burnett) some wins, and they’ll need to sort that out. Clippard has been fairly human this year, but fortunately Drew Storen has pitched out of his mind so far.
Can the Nationals be a .500 team? Well, I’d say that’s about 50/50 right now.