Nationals’ bats can’t sustain momentum

brushback_harperThe Nationals will hand the ball tonight to Nate Karns, a 25-year-old making his major league debut after only nine starts above the Class A level. He has the stuff – including a mid-90s fastball – to pitch in the majors, and the drama of his start will be fascinating.

From a competitive standpoint, though, the man the Nationals send to the mound has not mattered much this year. What matters is how they swing their still-frozen bats.

The Nationals, even fighting injuries up and down their lineup, seemed as though they might bust out. They scored six runs Sunday to win a series over the Phillies, gathering a little momentum. But the Nationals, thanks to their moribund offense, have not been able to sustain any kind of winning streak this year.

The Nationals are 22-4 this year when they score at least three runs, which is remarkable because of the winning percentage and, more so, because they have scored two or fewer runs in 25 of 51 games. You have to score at least a little to win, and the Nationals are simply not scoring.

Since the Nationals’ season-opening sweep of the Marlins, they’ve won three straight games only three times, with a season-high five-game winning streak. Even that run, capped by an impressive two-game sweep of the Tigers, was followed by a 1-4 skid. The Nationals’ starting pitching should equip them to rip off long winning streaks. Instead, their offense has caused any momentum to evaporate.

“This game is weird like that,” catcher Kurt Suzuki said yesterday. “Today wasn’t our day. We were getting some pitches to hit and fouling them off or popping them up.”

Injuries, surely, have contributed to the Nationals’ offensive rut. Bryce Harper has been out of the starting lineup five of the last 11 games and has been diminished for almost a month. Since he leaped into the wall in Atlanta on May 1, Harper is 11 for 57 (.193) with 11 walks. Jayson Werth hasn’t played since May 2. Danny Espinosa has played through a bone chip in his right wrist and mostly made outs.

If the Nationals want to see a fully functioning offense, they can look across the diamond this week. As a team, the Orioles are hitting .275/.332/.459, giving them an OPS of .791. Only two Nationals can match the Orioles’ OPS as an entire team, and one of them is a pitcher: Harper (.973) and Gio Gonzalez (.794).

“They can hit,” Suzuki said. “Some days, they swing the bats, because they’re good hitters over there. We can pitch to them. You pitch ahead in the count a little bit, it makes everything better.”

That’s what Karns can do to help himself tonight. Nothing he does, though, will matter if the Nationals cannot score.

FROM THE POST

Jason Hammel silenced the Nationals and the Orioles got the best of Gio Gonzalez in a 6-2 loss, James Wagner writes.

The Nationals’ starters need to carry the load, Jason Reid writes.

FROM YESTERDAY’S JOURNAL

Karns will start tonight

Espinosa, Werth, Ramos updates

Harper out with bursitis

Desmond playing steady D

NATS MINOR LEAGUES

Gwinnett 9, Syracuse 5: Zach Walters went 1 for 4 with a home run. Mike Costanzo went 2 for 4 with a double. Michael Crotta allowed no runs in one inning on no hits and no walks, striking out one.

Harrisburg 3, Reading 1: Steven Souza went 2 for 3 with a double and a walk. Jose Lozada went 2 for 3 with a double and a walk. Caleb Clay allowed one run on 6 1/3 innings on five hits and two walks, striking out nine.

Potomac 5, Salem 2: Sammy Solis allowed no runs in four innings on no hits and three walks, striking out four. Billy Burns went 2 for 4. Adrian Sanchez went 2 for 3 with a double and a walk.

Asheville 12, Hagerstown 4: Shawn Pleffner went 3 for 5. Tony Renda went 2 for 5.

Also on Nationals Journal

Nationals choose Nathan Karns to start Tuesday in place of Ross Detwiler