Nationals’ offensive woes, struggles against left-handers, Adam LaRoche’s ‘benching’

(John Bazemore / AP)

(John Bazemore / AP)

Don’t accuse Nationals Manager Davey Johnson of lacking in confidence. The day after yet another miserable offensive display, Johnson repeated his trust in his hitters and their ability to snap out of the season-long funk that has descended upon nearly the entire lineup. On Monday, seated on a bench in the visitor’s dugout at Citizens Bank Park, Johnson said much of what he has stated before. And in his usual style, he even injected some humor into the pregame chat with reporters.

“New day, new hope,” he said just after sitting down. “I was talking to [Phillies Manager] Charlie [Manuel]. We cried on each other’s shoulders about our offense.” Asked who cried harder, Johnson laughed. “Since I’m a month older than him, I guess I could cry harder.”

Is there anything left to try?

“I think we’ll be all right,” he said. “I still love the talent on this ballclub. Maybe we just relax and it’ll come out.”

When addressing the specific issues of the lineup, Johnson was far more direct. The Nationals are second to last with 3.49 runs per game. Their collective .233 average and .292 on-base percentage are each third worst. The team OPS of .666 is fourth worst. The lineup sorely needs the returns of Bryce Harper and Wilson Ramos but improved production from healthy and capable players.

“The middle of our lineup can be much more productive,” Johnson said. “They’re veterans. And I’m sure they will be.”

Johnson has preached aggressiveness. Hitters, he said, are letting the ball travel too deep into the their swings and their timing is being thrown off because of it.

“Everybody’s got a good stroke,” he said. “Pitchers try to mess with up your timing and your job is to not let them mess it up. They’ve been winning the battle so far. We need to start winning that battle. That’s it.”

Adam LaRoche, who is sitting Monday’s game against the Phillies and left-handed starter John Lannan, has noticed something similar. When he is slumping, as he is now, players are caught between pitches with bad timing.

“Late on the fastball a little bit, a little bit out front on the off-speed stuff, you’re kinda in that in between when you can’t really commit to anything,” he said. “I would say we’re stuck in that slot as a team where you’re almost afraid to look stupid on a curveball. You don’t want to get too late on the fastball.”

LaRoche is hitless in his last 15 at-bats and right-hander Chris Marrero is starting at first base instead. Johnson said he wanted to give LaRoche the rest and give a lesser-used bench player some playing time. LaRoche, however, interpreted another way.

“This is what you call a benching,” he said. “Not a day off. He calls it a day off. I call it a benching. Which I deserve.”

LaRoche, a hitter prone to streakiness, has also struggled against left-handed pitching, much like the most of the Nationals lineup. As a whole they Nationals offense is struggling, but against left-handed pitching they’re hitting a major league-worst .212. Against right-handers, they’re hitting .240, 25th in the majors. LaRoche, after hitting .268 off left-handers last year, is hitting .213 off them this season.

Of the Nationals with at least 25 at-bats against left-handers, Ryan Zimmerman (.288) and Ian Desmond (.339) are hitting the best. Jayson Werth has poor numbers for a right-handed batter against left-handers, with a .233 average. Harper (.174) and Denard Span (.145) haven’t hit left-handers well. Tyler Moore (.125) struggled against them when he did well against them last season.

LaRoche attributed the difference in his own numbers against left-handers to facing less of them, which is true, and, more than anything, the struggles of the team as a whole.

“I think it’s how streaky we’ve been this year,” LaRoche said. “Offensively, go two or three days and not do anything and have a breakout game and score six or eight runs probably just happen to be coming off righties right now.”

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