The Nationals head west

After a befuddling 2-1 loss to the Chicago Cubs and a series loss to a team with one of the worst records in baseball, the Nationals packed their bags in the clubhouse. The mood was generally upbeat although there was clear frustration that a win in their grasps slipped away, and in such head-scratching fashion. There may be no better cure for that than the next two opponents on a 10-game West Coast trip and emerging ace Jordan Zimmermann on the mound on Monday.

The Nationals head to California for their sole West Coast swing of the season, in the midst of a stretch in which they play 20 games over the next 21 days. They face the disappointing Los Angeles Dodgers first in a three-game series, then spend four games in San Diego and capped by three games against the defending champion San Francisco before returning home. The combined records of all three teams is a measly 54-57, buoyed by the strong 23-15 start by the Giants. The combined run differential of the three California NL teams is a paltry minus-33, pulled down by the horrid offensive starts of the Dodgers and Padres. Zimmermann (6-1, 1.59 ERA) squares off against Josh Beckett (0-4, 5.13 ERA), an easy way to snap a two-game skid.

The Nationals finished their brief home stand at 3-2, continuing the upward climb in May after a middling April. After seven wins in their past 10 games, the Nationals moved to 20-17 and only one game behind the Atlanta Braves in the NL East standings and four games ahead of the next-best Philadelphia Phillies. Through most of the past week, the offense was more consistent and the defense, too.

“We’re making progress,” Manager Davey Johnson said after Sunday’s loss. “Although it didn’t show.”

The recurring theme in both losses to the Cubs was the pitching staff hitting a wall, the defense and offense stumbling again. The Nationals’ 30 errors are second to the Cubs’ major league-leading 31. The Nationals are tied with the Astros and Cubs for a major league-leading 19 unearned runs. Pitching and defensive lapses have coincided too often. And after strong outputs against a talented Detroit Tigers’ starting rotation, the Nationals have slipped in several offensive categories. They average a MLB fourth-worst 3.54 runs per game and a third-worst .671 OPS.

But when some teams struggle, they tumble to the bottom of the standings. The Nationals have a winning record. The Dodgers, on the other hand, have been one of the most disappointing teams early this season. Picked as a popular playoff contender after a high-spending offseason with former Nationals president Stan Kasten at the helm, they sit at 15-21 and hampered by injuries.

Despite a record $220 million payroll and lofty expectations, the Dodgers have languished at the bottom of the NL West. There’s much speculation that Manager Don Mattingly is in hot water. Pitching injuries to Zack Greinke, Ted Lilly, Chad Billingsley and others have devastated the roster. Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier have combined for four home runs. They have used nine starters this season.

Greinke, the high-prized $147 million offseason acquisition that was linked to the Nationals in some baseball circles this winter, could return to the Dodgers on Wednesday and face the Nationals. He has been out with a broken left collarbone since his infamous April 12 fight with Padres’ Carlos Quentin. The Nationals have to look no further than Monday’s opponent to see how struggles and injuries can sink a team early.

FROM THE POST

The Nationals lose to the Cubs, 2-1, and the series on a head-scratching Sunday.

FROM YESTERDAY’S JOURNALKurt Suzuki ejected for the first time in career; strike zone disputed

Adam LaRoche undecided on using banned pink bats on Mother’s Day

Bryce Harper returns

Cubs at Nationals

NATS MINOR LEAGUES

Norfolk 14, Syracuse 1: Ryan Perry started and allowed seven runs on 10 hits over 3 1/3 innings. Reliever Jeff Mandel allowed six more runs on seven hits in one innings of relief. Erik Davis tossed a scoreless inning and has a 1.13 ERA in 16 innings. Chris Rahl drove in the game’s lone run.

Harrisburg 3, Binghamton 1: In his first start since his promotion, Taylor Jordan tossed four scoreless innings, struck out three and walked only one. Aaron Barrett picked up his sixth save of the season. Anthony Rendon went 2 for 2 with a two-run home run and two walks.

Binghamton 9, Harrisburg 3 (makeup): Nate Karns had a bad outing, allowed six runs, five of them earned, on four hits and walked three and recorded only one out. Anthony Rendon went 1 for 3 and is hitting .354. Josh Johnson hit a two-run shot. Justin Bloxom went 2 for 3.

Potomac 7, Winston-Salem 2: Taylor Hill gave up only one run on four hits over four innings, striking out four and issuing one walk. Tyler Herron pitched three scoreless innings of relief and lowered his ERA to 1.86. Kevin Keyes hit a three-run homer and Justin Miller added a two-run shot. Adrian Nieto went 2 for 4.

Potomac 7, Winston-Salem 1 (makeup): Blake Schwartz allowed only one run over seven innings and fanned five but walked three. Adrian Sanchez drove in three runs, Justin Miller knocked in two, and Jason Martinson and Caleb Ramsey each added one. Leadoff hitter Billy Burns went 1 for 2 with two walks.

Delmarva 12, Hagerstown 7: Kylin Turnbull lasted only three innings, allowing nine runs, six earned, on nine hits. Wander Ramos and Tony Renda hit home runs. Brandon Miller went 2 for 4 with an RBI.

Hagerstown 4, Delmarva 3 (makeup): Erick Fernandez singled in the winning run in the bottom of the ninth. Bryan Harper picked up the win with the final two scoreless innings and three strikeouts. He has allowed one earned run over nine innings. Ivan Pineyro allowed three runs, two earned, over five innings. Brandon Miller hit his sixth home run of the season.

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 · May 12, 2013