To pinpoint exactly what has gone wrong with a roster that was thought to be the best in baseball coming into the season is close to impossible. It can be seen that the Nationals aren’t scoring runs, but that had changed. In nearly a month with Anthony Rendon at second base and a healthy Werth in right field the Nationals were averaging over four runs a game, and then they got Bryce Harper back, and when he homered in his first at bat off the DL it looked like he would provide an even bigger spark.
Since that homerun Harper doesn’t have a single hit, but that isn’t for lack of effort. In the first inning today the Nationals didn’t get a single hit, but it looked like they eventually would. Denard Span drove a ball just shy of the warning track in right followed by Werth driving one deep to center field and again shy of the warning track. Then Harper had the hardest hit ball of the inning and for a moment it looked like he got enough of it. Brewers’ center fielder Carlos Gomez turned to chase the ball and stopped short of the wall in front of the Red Porch and then took a left turn tracking the ball and leaping at the last minute to rob Harper of extra bases.
For the first couple innings that is how it went for the Nationals. Ryan Zimmerman led off the second with a drive deep to right, caught on the warning track followed by a walk and a single before Rendon struck out on a pitch he thought was high and Suzuki hit a fly ball to right. The Nats would continue to hit the ball hard as Detwiler held the Brewers scoreless and then things started to change. This game was the baseball equivalent of a hockey game where one team is swarming in and out of the crease but can’t get anything past a goalie standing on his head or a football team where one team is spending most of the game in the red zone but settling for field goals. Bryce Harper even tipped his helmet to Carlos Gomez when he ran down a liner he hit to the gap.
Then it changed. After squandering back to back no out singles in the fourth the Brewers were able to push across two runs in the fifth after a lead-off double, bunt single, sac bunt, and solid single past the drawn in infield. After that the Nationals couldn’t muster much offense. They got back to back singles in the bottom of the fifth with two outs, but couldn’t keep the rally going when Span struck out. In total the Nats had seven base runners on the evening and left six of them on. The one that wasn’t left was Rendon who drove himself in with a solo homer.
The problem is six left on base isn’t a bad number of runners to leave on base. It is far more alarming that that is all the base runners the Nationals had. Left on base numbers only tell so much. If the Nats left six men on base, but drove in the other six they had on base no one would be complaining about the left on base numbers. The low OBP isn’t the only issue for the Nationals. When the score is tied they have a team OPS of .721, when ahead it drops slightly to .715, but when behind they hit worst of all at .613. For comparison the NL average for those situations is .714 tie, .722 ahead, and .688 behind. So while all teams hit worse when they are behind the Nats do it to a more significant degree and are surprisingly above average when the game is tied.
What exact issue this speaks to is unknown. It could be that the Nats are more likely to use a pinch hitter when trailing and their bench has been nothing but disappointing or it could speak to a willingness in the players to concede a game when they fall behind or it could be a lack of steady leadership helping the players to stay even keeled when things aren’t going their way. It cannot be known if it is any of these or even something else. It is hard with these Washington Nationals to pinpoint exactly what has gone wrong.
Even when the stats show an obvious issue when that issue is examined closer it becomes even more puzzling. According to stats the Nats need a left or a right fielder at the trade deadline, but that is because both Werth and Harper missed a month and their fill ins did close to nothing. No one in their right mind would replace either of these players, or label them as an issue with the 2013 Nationals. The same goes with the Nationals second base numbers. At the end of May a trade for a second baseman made sense, but with the way Rendon has played it no longer does. What the Nationals really need to get better is time. Time for everything to start clicking now that everyone is healthy, but they have played themselves into such a hole that time may, in fact, be up.