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Posted at 07:16 AM ET, 05/27/2011

Nationals at a make-or-break point


The Nationals have descended all the way to the fourth-worst record in the major leagues, and as ugly as that sudden unraveling has been, there is still plenty of season left for them to turn it around. Roughly 50 games into the season, the Nationals have established what they are, but there’s also 113 games remaining. They could use them to change that, or to continue another slide into irrelevance.

They have a manager whose authority has been challenged, an offense that has a .299 on-base percentage and a starting rotation that, after a great start, has a collective 4.21 ERA, 22nd in the majors. It will be another three weeks or so until Ryan Zimmerman returns. It’s not even June yet, but this could be a make-or-break stretch, if it’s not already broken.

Their performance this week, in a six-game homestand that starts tonight, may well determine which direction they go. They start with three games against the San Diego Padres, the team with the third-worst record in the National League. It should be the right opponent against which to pull out of their 1-7 tailspin, especially at home, where they are 11-9.

If the Nationals cannot make hay against the offensively challenged Padres, then they’ll face the Phillies, a team that in recent seasons has treated the Nationals like a lawnmower treats grass.

Their recent 1-7 stretch probably makes the current state of the Nationals seem worse than it actually is. If some of the losses on this ruinous road trip had been sprinkled in earlier in the year, would it be surprise to see the Nationals sitting at 18-23 without Ryan Zimmerman? Some fans probably would have taken that record.

Still, without Zimmerman, the Nationals’ offensive deficiencies have become even more stark. Last week, Mike Rizzo made an unusual statement about the Nationals’ predicament, telling Ken Rosenthal, “We’re playing terrific baseball except for the fact that we’re struggling with runners in scoring position.”

At the time Rizzo made those comments, the Nationals were hitting .228/.300/.359 overall and .223/.318/.362 with runners in scoring position. They had actually been better with runners in scoring position. A few days later, the overall numbers are .229/.299/.360, while they’re hitting .228/.323/.381. Their OPS with runners in scoring position is currently 45 points higher than without.

It’s possible that Rizzo responded to a reporter’s question with the first bromide that came to mind rather than risking alienating his players or staff. But if he said what he really believes – and we can only take him at his word – then it’s a strange stance. That is not identifying and addressing a problem. It’s rationalizing.

The Nationals showed some signs of tension on their road trip, most notably Jason Marquis’s shouting match with Jim Riggleman and Jayson Werth’s veiled comments Wednesday. The day off and a trip home may have helped settle some of that stress and returned the focus to just playing baseball without distraction. We’ll start to find out tonight.

FROM THE POST

Jason Reid is critical of the way Jayson Werth made his comments Wednesday, asking, “Does this guy own a mirror?”

NATS MINOR LEAGUES

Syracuse 9, Charlotte 1: Jeff Frazier went 3 for 4 with a home run and a walk. Brad Meyers allowed one run in six innings on seven hits and no walks, striking out three. In 10 starts, six at Harrisburg and four at Syracuse, Meyers has struck out 57 and walked one.

Harrisburg 7, Akron 6: Tyler Moore went 2 for 5 with two doubles. Stpehen Lombardozzi went 2 for 5. Derek Norris went 1 for 5 with a home run. Oliver Perez started and pitched only one inning, allowing a solo home run and striking out one. Brad Peacock allowed two runs in 6 2/3 innings on three hits and a walk, striking out nine. Peacock has struck out 75 batters in 55 innings.

Harrisbug 6, Akron 1 (7 innings): Ryan Tatusko allowed one run in four innings on four hits and two walks, striking out four. Devin Ivany went 2 for 3.

Potomac was off.

Asheville 4, Hagerstown 1 (11 innings): Bryce Harper went 0 for 5 with two strikeouts. He’s hitting .329/.413/.569. Robbie Ray allowed no runs in two innings on no hits and a walk, striking out one.

By  |  07:16 AM ET, 05/27/2011

 
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