It’s time for Nate McLouth’s closeup

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In the dead of winter, Nate McLouth seemed like a luxury. The Nationals signed him to a two-year, $10.5 million contract, maybe a bit heavy for a fourth outfielder. But the Nationals knew their team could contend, and they knew they had two outfielders in Bryce Harper and Jayson Werth — one young and maybe reckless, the other aging and perhaps prone to injury — who required some sort of insurance.

Today, McLouth seems like a necessity. From now until Harper returns from the disabled list, an amount of time to be determined by his visit to a second hand specialist in Cleveland, McLouth will be the Nationals’ primary left fielder. Manager Matt Williams said Tyler Moore and Kevin Frandsen will also get some time in left, but as the left-handed portion of a platoon, McLouth will get the most time.

The Nationals anticipated they would need McLouth. And now they do.

“The way he plays, things like that can happen,” McLouth said. “And I mean that in a good way. It’s unfortunate. He plays in such a way that things like that can happen. It’s kind of a freak thing. His finger kind of caught on the base. Hopefully, I’ll be able to hold down the fort until he gets back.”

Cosmetically, McLouth’s start seems to suggest he’ll have a hard time replacing Harper. He was rock-solid last year as an everyday played in Baltimore. To start this year as a part-time player, McLouth has gone 4 for 34, including the solo homer he crushed Sunday off Joaquin Benoit.

Dig deeper, though, and McLouth appears poised to break out. He has struck out six times and drawn six walks, an indication that he’s rarely getting fooled. Entering Sunday, he had a .120 batting average on balls in play, a sign he’s been hitting into rotten luck. He also had seen 4.28 pitches per plate appearance, an indicator he’s stayed patient.

McLouth has insisted all month his at-bat have been better than his results. Even before he hit the homer Sunday, he didn’t waver.

WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 27: Nate McLouth #15 of the Washington Nationals hits a home run in the eighth inning against the San Diego Padres at Nationals Park on April 27, 2014 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images)
(Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images)

“Hits aren’t falling yet,” McLouth said. “But I’ve felt like I’ve had competitive at-bats. It’s not like I’m going in there rolling over the first pitch or striking out a bunch. That happens sometimes. It’s just happened at the beginning of the season. My timing doesn’t feel off. I haven’t been having a ton of consistent at-bats. My timing has felt okay. I haven’t had much luck or had many hits fall in yet.

“I have felt lost the plate before. I haven’t felt like that. It’ll happen. What you can’t do, and what I’ve tried to do many times in the past, you can’t go up there and try to get a hit. You can’t control that. You got to go about the process, trust that it’s going to happen over the long run.”

McLouth will have an opportunity to test that out, because Harper’s injury means he will receive enough at-bats. The Nationals hope Harper misses around 15 days, but they fear he may have suffered an injury that keeps him out more than a month. Either way, the Nationals will need to count on McLouth in the role they hoped wouldn’t come, but still expected he would fill.

FROM THE POST

FROM YESTERDAY’S JOURNAL

Danny Espinosa dealing with soreness, swelling in knee

Doug Fister pleased with first rehab start

Wilson Ramos, Scott Hairston nearing returns

Bryce Harper lands on disabled list with thumb injury

NATS MINOR LEAGUES

Indianapolis 2, Syracuse 1: Ryan Tatusko allowed two runs on four hits and four walks over six innings. Tyler Robertson and Xavier Cedeno tossed scoreless innings each. Will Rhymes went 1 for 3 with a walk. Brock Peterson went 1 for 4 with an RBI. Ryan Mattheus threw one pitch and was ejected from the game; four Syracuse batters were hit Saturday.

Harrisburg 10, Bowie 7: Felipe Rivero allowed one unearned on two hits and four walks over five innings for his first win. Gabriel Alfaro allowed five runs on four hits and three walks over 1 1/3 innings. Leadoff hitter Michael A. Taylor hit three home runs and drove in four runs. He is hitting .253 with five home runs on the season. Rick Hague went 2 for 5 with two RBI.

Potomac 6, Lynchburg 5: In his first rehab start, Doug Fister allowed three unearned runs on six hits and struck out three over four innings. Brett Mooneyham earned the win after allowing two runs on five hits over the next five innings. Shawn Pleffner had the walkoff single to score Khayyan Norfork. Pedro Severino finished 3 for 4 with two RBI. Stephen Perez added three hits.

Hagerstown 5, West Virginia 2: Lucas Giolito allowed two runs on three hits, walked three and struck out four over 4 1/3 innings. Wander Suero fired 4 2/3 scoreless innings and allowed only one hit. Isaac Ballou went 2 for 3 and Wilmer Difo finished 3 for 5 with two RBI.

Adam Kilgore covers the Nationals for The Washington Post.
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Adam Kilgore · April 27

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