Washington Nationals return from road trip with questions to answer


Bryce Harper is helped off the field after running into the outfield wall.
Bryce Harper has been giving manager Davey Johnson headaches after a tumultuous week in the outfield. (Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)

In my last post, I advised Washington Nationals fans not to panic, but to prepare to. Since then, they have a record of 7-8 with a run differential of -14 and find themselves four and a half games behind the Atlanta Braves in the National League East.

The Nats now return to Washington following a West Coast road trip which featured Bryce Harper running into a wall, Ryan Mattheus breaking his hand punching a locker, Jayson Werth suffering an injury setback, Ross Detweiler missing a start and Rafael Soriano blowing two saves, and making some pretty cheap comments about Bryce Harper after the second blown save.

The biggest problem remains the offense. So far this season, they average just under 3.4 runs per game having scored 159. Only two teams have scored fewer runs, the Los Angeles Dodgers, who have played two fewer games, and the Miami Marlins, who shouldn’t be the basis for comparison for any team. They also rank second worst in the majors for batting average (.225) and OBP (.289).

Harper has been doing his best, hitting 12 of the team’s 42 home runs, including an important one against the Giants to end the road trip on a high. While it’s easy to keep pointing the finger at the same people for not performing, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to justify Danny Espinosa’s place in the starting line-up. Hitting just .163 ranks him third worst among eligible players, and his OBP is 40 points lower than Ike Davis, coming in at .196. Espinosa has also continued to show incredibly poor discipline at the plate, taking just four walks while striking out 40 times.

One of the problems is there’s no one obvious to replace Espinosa at second base. Anthony Rendon may be doing well in double-A Harrisburg, but he struggled when he was up earlier this year. Steve Lombardozzi has been getting a fair bit of playing time but isn’t good enough to be an every day starter. So, we might just have to ride the slump and hope the likes of Adam LaRoche continue to improve with the bat.

Some mistakes in the field have also cost the Nats dearly in recent weeks. No team has committed more errors than the Nationals, whether it’s Ryan Zimmerman spoiling the perfect game Stephen Strasburg had going against the Cubs, Jordan Zimmermann throwing away a pickoff attempt to lose the game in San Diego or Bryce Harper flinching at the wall in San Francisco.

There are also issues in the clubhouse. While it’s always good to see players who are passionate about their team, and we’d be ever more worried if they simply shrugged their shoulders after a loss, it’s not encouraging to hear Soriano suggest that his four-year-old son could have done a better job of playing right-field than Bryce Harper. Mattheus was so upset at giving up five runs in one inning on Monday that he broke his hand punching a locker. When skipper Davey Johnson was asked how he felt about the incident, he replied he wanted to “choke him to death.”

The pitching has certainly picked up in the last few weeks. Though, in my eyes, big question marks remain about Dan Haren. I’d be surprised if he stays in the rotation for the rest of the season. Strasburg has had his off-speed stuff looking filthy in his last few starts, giving up just two earned runs in his last 20 innings. Gio Gonzalez has worked through his early season command issue, walking just six in his last 21 innings over three starts and Zimmermann looks like a total stud; his line for the last five games reads 39.2 IP, 4ER, 3BB, 30K.

While the starters have been handing over solid outings, the bullpen has struggled to see them through, despite the best efforts of Tyler Clippard. Soriano has been inconsistent at best, and the sight of Fernando Abad and Yunesky Maya warming up in the bullpen sent cold shivers down the spines of most Nats fans. Watching the latter stages of recent games has left some with flashbacks to game five of last year’s NLDS.

All of this brings us back to a question we thought we had finally left behind: Should the Nats have gone for broke last year and lifted the innings limit on Strasburg? If the current form continues, that’s something we’ll be hearing about for years.

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