Assessing the Nationals through one quarter of the season

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Wednesday was the unofficial first quarter mark of the Nationals’ season. And through 40 of the season’s 162-game marathon, the Nationals have a record of 21-19. This early milestone affords an opportunity to assess the Nationals’ season.

“I think as a team we’re playing well,” said starter Doug Fister after Wednesday’s 5-1 win in which he tossed seven strong innings. “We’ve hit a few ups and down throughout the year so far. It builds character and keeps us strong and teaches us what we have and what we need to work on. I think it’s something that is going be a good sign and a good thing for us late in the season.”

Oddly enough, at the same point during last year’s disappointing season, the Nationals were also 21-19. Last season, the Nationals trailed the Atlanta Braves in the National League East standings by one game. The deficit is this season? One and a half games.

The Nationals have scored 3.98 runs per game (22nd in baseball) and they are hitting .249 (16th), have a .313 on-base percentage (18th), a .396 slugging percentage (12th) and collective .709 OPS (15th). Last season at this point, the Nationals were scoring 3.5 runs per games with a .231/.292/.370 slash line and a .662 OPS. And the Nationals have 12 comeback victories and have a .792 OPS (2nd best) from the seventh inning on, something they struggled with last season. The bench is productive. In other words, the  offense, despite a recent slowdown, has improved since last year.

The production from the pitching staff, however, is nearly the same. Nationals pitchers have a collective 3.30 ERA (sixth best in baseball), a .254 opponents average against (16th) and a 1.27 WHIP (12th). Last season, the Nationals had a 3.34 ERA, a .245 opponents average against and a 1.21 WHIP. A big difference, however, is the number of unearned runs allowed. The Nationals allowed 19 unearned runs through 40 games last season. This year, the Nationals have allowed 28.

To offer a snapshot of the roster at the time, in Game 40 last season the Nationals had Ross Detwiler starting, Steve Lombardozzi in left field and Roger Bernadina in right against the Los Angeles Dodgers. Two days before, Bryce Harper collided into the right field wall in Dodger Stadium. Jayson Werth was the disabled list with a hamstring strain. Danny Espinosa was hitting .177 and Adam LaRoche was hitting .214. Wilson Ramos was back from his first hamstring strain but days away from hurting it worse. Davey Johnson was in the dugout.

On Wednesday, Game 40 this year, the Nationals looked different but also had a similar glut of injuries. Werth started in right and is hitting .297, including a big game-tying home run in the seventh. Espinosa is hitting .226 but has a team-high six home runs. Ian Desmond has a .226 average along with 46 strikeouts and 22 RBI. In his first week back from a hand injury, Ramos had a day off and Jose Lobaton started instead. Nate McLouth was in left field for the injured Harper and hitting .117. Tyler Moore was at first base for the injured LaRoche, the team’s best hitter. Anthony Rendon manned third because Ryan Zimmerman’s broken thumb still hasn’t healed. And, Fister made his second start of the season after returning from injury and pitched closer to his true form.

Despite the injuries, Manager Matt Williams has refused to lower expectations. The team’s play has been inconsistent, strong at times strong and followed by a sloppy game. Despite an emphasis on defense, the Nationals have committed 36 errors, tied for second-most in baseball.

“We have professional baseball players on our team,” he said before Wednesday’s game. “As evidenced [three] days ago, those guys can play well and come through and we can win a game. Losing games is frustrating at any time regardless of who is on the field. And you can’t say, ‘Boy, we don’t have our big guys so it’s okay.’ It’s never okay. And we don’t feel that way.

“We have to play well and do things right. We have to come through with guys on base, pitch well and defend well and all of those. There’s probably a little more emphasis on it now because you don’t have your starting nine as you laid it out in spring training but it is what it is and there’s nothing we can do about it. Those guys in the lineup have to step up and we have to play well. It’s a challenge certainly. We still have to play.”

Williams also believes the Nationals have yet to hit their stride. They haven’t made a run yet because they haven’t cleaned up all facets of their play. Werth offered a rosier view of the Nationals’ position through 40 games, a sentiment similar to the ones offered by the Nationals during last season’s slow start through injuries and uneven play.

“Heading home two games above .500, all things considered, I feel good about where we’re at,” he said after Wednesday’s win. “Even if we head back right at .500, that’s not bad either. This was a big win especially the way the game went and came from behind again and had some big hits late. That’s kinda been our M.O. this year. That’s good. We’re playing tough. We’re missing some guys. We got Dougie [Fister] back [Wednesday]. He looked good. Everyone has been kinda down on us and negative about our season. I’m not.”

FROM THE POST

There is a lot of down time in major league baseball

Struggling Ian Desmond delivers key hit and Doug Fister pitches seven strong inning as Nationals beat Arizona, 5-1.

FROM YESTERDAY’S JOURNAL

Explaining the Nationals’ ninth-inning challenge

Adam LaRoche resting quad in Washington, expected back from DL when eligible

Robbie Ray showing Tigers’ side of Fister trade

Wilson Ramos building strength, confidence in surgically repaired hand

NATS MINOR LEAGUES

Syracuse 3, Toledo 0: Taylor Hill improved to 5-1 and lowered his ERA to 1.99 by tossing five scoreless innings. He allowed only two hits, walked one and struck out four. Michael Gonzalez allowed one hit over two scoreless innings. Manny Delcarmen did the same. Emmanuel Burriss went 1 for 3 and drove in two runs.

Akron 4, Harrisburg 2: Brad Meyers allowed three runs on five hits over four innings. Colin Bates fired three scoreless innings. Kevin Keyes hit a solo home run. Cutter Dykstra also drove in a run. Quincy Latimore went 2 for 3.

Frederick 12, Potomac 5: On rehab, Ross Ohlendorf allowed seven runs on 11 hits over 2 1/3 innings.  Shawn Pleffner went 3 for 5 with two runs and two RBI. Khayyan Norfork went 1 for 5 with two RBI.

Hagerstown 4, Lakewood 2: Nick Pivetta allowed two runs on five hits over seven innings, walking two and striking out four. Justin Thomas fired two scoreless innings. Rafael Bautista went 1 for 3 with two RBI. Estarlin Martinez went 1 for 3 and drove in a run.

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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