Danny Espinosa’s double play in the ninth inning yesterday encapsulated the Nationals’ offensive frustrations. They had pieced together the kind of rally from which a few runs should have shaken loose just by accident: bases loaded, one out, the game on the line. Espinosa ripped a hard bouncer back at the pitcher, who fired home to start a 1-2-3 double play. Extra innings.
The Nationals’ maddening work with the bases loaded had continued. They’re now 3 for 16 with three walks, and it would be worse if Adam LaRoche – the supposed slow starter who leads the Nationals with two homers and eight RBI – had not drilled a two-run, bases-loaded single yesterday. The Nationals have also had 19 chances with a man on third and less than two outs, and only five times have they scored the runner.
“We definitely aren’t taking advantage of the opportunities that we’ve had,” Ryan Zimmerman said.
The other takeaway, though, is that the Nationals are finally producing base runners at a respectable clip. Led by Ian Desmond at .441, the Nationals have a .344 on-base percentage, fifth in the majors and second in the National League. It’s only been a week, and so it may well be a mirage. But it’s a promising start for a team that punched up a .309 on-base percentage last year, 25th in the majors and 13th in the NL.
The Nationals have produced so many base runners, in part, by staying patient at the plate. They’ve seen 4.00 pitches per plate appearance, fifth in the majors and up from 3.81 last season.
Again, we understand the folly of quoting these stats one week into the season, but it does seem representative of a shift in the Nationals’ approach. Manager Davey Johnson said the Nationals’ patience has been a byproduct of aggression, which sounds paradoxical. Johnson believes the Nationals’ willingness to hack at first-pitch fastballs has led to pitchers being more careful, which has led to long at-bats.
“Opposing pitchers notice it if a guy hits a bullet early in the count, they’re not just trying to get ahead,” Johnson said. “I think the tendency last year by the opposition was to go right after us, get ahead and then start working us. This year, being more offensive, more aggressive early in the count leads to a higher on-base percentage.
“Pitchers are not going to say, ‘Okay, these guys take a lot of fastballs, I’m just going to throw one right down the middle to get ahead, boom.’ They’re realizing they can get hurt and so now you start trying to hit the corners and then you get behind and your on-base percentage goes up. With the talent we have, that’s the way we should approach it. The other pitchers notice that so they’re being more cautious early in the counts.”
The Nationals need to start converting their chances. But, in a change from last year, the chances are there.