Is there hope for the Nationals offense?

There has been a lot of angst over the Nationals lusterless offense. The giddy joy of last season and this winter seems hard to remember after the ninth loss in 12 games, particularly when the bats were sleepy yet again and in crucial spots. But there’s a lot to keep in mind when letting the gloom and doom consume you.

“You’re never as bad as you look when you lose,” Manager Davey Johnson said. “We’re on a bad run.”

No matter the time of the season, a sub-.500 record of 10-11 is hard to look at when the team was picked repeatedly over the winter to be a World Series favorite. But as many players and Johnson continue to stress, it is early. It is only April. There are 141 more games to be played. Johnson’s tweaks to the lineup are to address what he sees as pressing hitters and a way to jump-start production by changing roles. But even he has pointed out that last season the offense started off slow, too, and were carried by the pitching. With warming temperatures, he suggested, the bats will heat up, too.

Historically, there is truth to Johnson’s belief and could provide hope who are anguishing over the current state of affairs. Consider the numbers:

This year’s slash line (through 21 games): .235/.299/.402 with 24 home runs, 61 walks, 76 runs and 163 strikeouts.

Last year’s slash line (through 21 games): .230/.307/.335 with 13 home runs, 78 walks, 74 runs and 159 strikeouts.

At this point last season, the Nationals were 14-7, bailed out repeatedly by dominant pitching and timely hitting. They had won six games by one run. Ryan Zimmerman wasn’t hitting well, limited by his hurt shoulder that had already landed him on the disabled list. Michael Morse hadn’t yet played because of a lat muscle tear. Ian Desmond was still the leadoff hitter, a role that didn’t suit his skills. Mark DeRosa was hitting third and Xavier Nady was playing regularly.

This season, cleanup hitter Zimmerman is on the disabled list with hamstring strain, as is power-hitting catcher Wilson Ramos. But even then, the rest of the offense is capable enough of producing in their absences. The result has been a pressing offense which is averaging 3.62 runs per game, 23rd of 30 teams in the majors, and seeing only 3.81 pitches per plate appearance, 22nd in the majors. But, historically across the league, offenses are slow in the early months.

“I don’t think anybody expects to do what we’re doing right now all year long,” Desmond said. “We believe in ourselves and I think that sometimes that makes it even more frustrating because we know what we are capable of doing. Just right now, it’s the way it’s going.”

Last season, for example, the major league triple slash line in March/April was .249/.316/.395 with 638 home runs. Each month until September, the numbers rose. By May, it was .255/.322/.408 and 859 home runs. Each subsequent month was around the same or higher for home runs (June, 850; July, 811; August, 861; September/October, 915). Even a brief look at the previous two seasons, hitters heated up as the season progressed, peaking in July and August with home runs. The ball can travel further in higher humidity.

The Nationals hit their stride last season in the second half, aided by the return of healthy players, and smashed record home runs. Even in May, the Nationals slash line jump to .257/.320/.447 and 34 home runs. The best OPS months were July (.776) and September/October (.819). And a team BABIP (batting average with balls in play) of .273, 24th in the majors, could suggest a bit of unluckiness in hits landing in gloves or not hit in the right spot. (Last season’s BABIP was .308, fifth-best.)

“At some point I really believe that the ball’s going to bounce our way,” Jayson Werth said. “We just, we haven’t been, we’ve been unlucky. We really have. We’ve hit balls hard right at people. I feel like I’ve hit balls hard right at people all season. I feel like we’re all doing it. It’ll turn. This is part of the game. You play long enough, these things happen. Just got to stick with it. Not going to give up or anything like that.”

April/March 2012: .226/.304/.328 with 13 home runs and 74 runs

May 2012: .257/.320/.447 with 34 home runs and 118 runs.

June 2012: .254/.308/.429 with 32 home runs and 116 runs.

July 2012: .280/.334/.443 with 34 home runs and 132 runs.

August 2012: .268/.326/.409 with 28 home runs and 137 runs.

September/October 2012: .274/.335/.484 with 53 home runs and 154 runs.

Also, it’s easy to forget the quality of opponents the Nationals faced and will continue to. The Cardinals are a strong team with patient and smart hitters and a starting rotation with a major-league leading 2.35 ERA. The Nationals, for all their talent and expectations placed upon them, are in a brutal stretch of their early schedule where they play 17 straight games. After the Cardinals, come the defending NL Central champion Cincinnati Reds and then the Atlanta Braves and AL champion Detroit Tigers, with a trip to Pittsburgh sandwiched in between. Even though the Nationals had so much preseason praise heaped upon them for their potential, their opponents — other than the Miami Marlins — haven’t been pushovers.

“We want to play good teams,” Denard Span said. “We get a chance to see where we are. I think its going to help us later on in the season.”

FROM THE POST

The Nationals fall to the Cardinals, 4-2, are swept, the bats again fall silent and are under .500 for the first time since 2011.

Stephen Strasburg must get back to putting first-pitch strikes first, writes Thomas Boswell.

FROM YESTERDAY’S JOURNAL

Cardinals at Nationals discussion thread: Game 21

Wilson Ramos could begin rehab assignment Friday

Davey Johnson sits Adam LaRoche for a mental break; more lineup changes may come

Nationals-Cardinals lineups

A closer look at the Nationals lineup

NATS MINOR LEAGUES

Syracuse was suspended in the top of the 11th with Rochester leading 6-5.

Reading 6, Harrisburg 5: Jerad Head and Justin Bloxom both hit solo home runs. Brian Goodwin is heating up, going 2 for 4 and raising his average to .288. Rick Hague knocked a triple and two RBI. Starter Trevor Holder went four innings and allowed four runs, only two earned.

Potomac 2, Carolina 0: Starter Blake Schwartz allowed only three hits and struck out five over six innings. Tyler Herron pitched two scoreless innings of relief and Derek Self notched the save. Kevin Keyes hit a two-run home run in the fourth, the winning difference.

Hagerstown was postponed because of rain.

James Wagner joined the Post in August 2010 and, prior to covering the Nationals, covered high school sports across the region.
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James Wagner · April 24, 2013