The Washington Nationals entered the year with the unabashed expectation of being remembered. They would like to forget the completed portion of their schedule — especially their just-finished, often-calamitous 10-game road trip — but through early underachieving they have not panicked. Their series at the San Francisco Giants, the defending champions, gave shortstop Ian Desmond a realization.
“There’s nobody out there that can tell me what the Giants’ record was on May 22 of last year, what [Buster] Posey’s batting average was, what Matt Cain’s ERA was without looking it up on their computer,” Desmond said. “That stuff doesn’t matter. At the end of the year, when you’re fighting for that postseason, the World Series title, nobody remembers any of that stuff. You got to grind through it. At the end of the day, we’re all going to look back and nobody’s going to remember what happened on May 21 or 22.”
For now, though, all we have is what has happened through late May. Nearly two months into a campaign Manager Davey Johnson christened “World Series or Bust,” the Nationals have played below the expectations both they and the baseball world set.
The Nationals are 24-23 and have been outscored by 26 runs, which ranks 10th in the National League. They will return to Nationals Park on Friday night 41 / 2 games behind the Atlanta Braves and one game ahead of the third-place Philadelphia Phillies, whom the Nationals will face for the first time this year.
“There’s a lot of guys that have higher upsides that they haven’t got to,” Johnson said. “But they will. The future is very bright for this organization and this team. Did I think some guys would be struggling at this time? Yeah, I did. Did I think they’d be struggling this bad? No, I didn’t. But it’s a long season. There’s still a chance to make a few course changes.”
The Nationals can find solace in the course changes they experienced last year. In 2012, during their 98-win magic carpet ride, the Nationals went 27-26 from April 26 through June 25 — nearly a third of the season steeped in mediocrity. That stretch just happened to follow a 14-4 start, and they stood in first place for all but seven days.
“Everybody in the baseball world knows that we’re a good team,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said. “We’re still the same team now. We’ve battled through injuries and some adversity and some inconsistency, but it’s the same group of guys that we’re very proud of. I see us as a team that’s going to right the ship.”
Even at their lowest point, though, the 2012 Nationals never struggled to score runs like the current version. The Nationals have a series of small issues, but hovering over all of them is offensive ineptitude. Not even Bryce Harper, one of the top offensive forces in the league at age 20 with 12 homers and a .994 on-base plus slugging percentage, has pulled them from a team-wide morass. The Nationals have a .225 batting average (29th in the majors), a .289 on-base percentage (29th) and a .365 slugging percentage (28th).
“One of the reasons, which people overlook, is we’re a young ballclub,” Johnson said. “The league can make adjustments to young hitters. We’re not making adjustments to those adjustments. It’s that simple. You go through a process with that with young players.”
The process has been particularly acute for Danny Espinosa and the Nationals’ bench. The Nationals have received less production from second base than any team in the majors; Espinosa has hit .163 with a .196 on-base percentage and a .291 slugging percentage with his rewired swing. One scout, furthering Johnson’s point about making adjustments, said, “the league knows how to pitch to him.”
The Nationals’ deficiency among their reserves stands out because of their success last year. Tyler Moore, Roger Bernadina, Steve Lombardozzi and Chad Tracy, the four hitters who make up the so-called Goon Squad, are hitting a combined .163 in 257 at-bats. The bench figures to improve, if only because those four are playing so far below their standards. Rizzo appeared disinclined to change personnel.
“You have to be comfortable with the players you have and the roster you have,” Rizzo said. “You always have to balance what’s best for the player, and sometimes what’s best for the player is to send him down to the minor leagues to get more work, to get more comfortable, to try and make adjustments at a less stressful situation. There comes a time in development where you have to learn how to grind it through and get through it at the major league level.”
The bench’s performance has shown as injuries struck. Ryan Zimmerman, Jayson Werth and Wilson Ramos have all landed on the disabled list. The Nationals also lack another key bat from last year’s lineup. This week, an American League scout who follows the Nationals wondered, “Maybe they miss [Michael] Morse’s presence?”
The Nationals have allowed 3.94 runs per game, ninth in the majors entering Thursday night but still more than they should be giving up. The five starters, despite blips from addition Dan Haren, have delivered a collective 3.15 ERA, third in the majors. Shoddy defense has hurt — the Nationals share the major league lead with 37 errors — and too many leads have been lost.
Nationals relievers have blown eight saves, three by new closer Rafael Soriano. The Nationals entered the year with long man Zach Duke as their only left-handed reliever, confident in their right-handed relievers’ ability to retire left-handed hitters. Tyler Clippard has dominated lefties, but they are hitting better than .380 against Drew Storen, Ryan Mattheus and Duke.
On their road trip, the Nationals showed signs of a team carrying the burden of expectations. Mattheus broke his hand punching a locker Sunday. Two days later, Soriano vented frustration — in comments he later took back — about Harper’s positioning on a crucial misplay.
“If you start worrying about making the playoffs or winning the division or doing as good as you did last year, that’s when you get in trouble,” Zimmerman said. “You just got to keep it simple and go out there and compete each night. To be honest with you, I haven’t thought about that. Some guys might have. I don’t really get a sense that’s a problem in here.”
It may be making a difference to other teams, though.
“When you choose to put a bull’s-eye on your back and make statements about going to the World Series, I think it’s insulting to some of the other teams who have actually done it, like the Giants and the St. Louis Cardinals,” said one National League evaluator, who requested anonymity in order to speak freely about another team. “When you do things like that, it doesn’t make [opponents] play better. It just gives them the motivation to really get up for games. There’s definitely something to be said for that. There’s 29 other teams out there that aren’t feeling sorry for the Nationals.”
He added, “There’s too much time left, and they’re talented. They’re very good.”
The difficult start to their season may have humbled the Nationals, but it has not downgraded their ambition. It is late May and the Nationals are not where they want to be. But they are not backing down.
“Davey said, ‘World Series or Bust,’ ” Desmond said. “That’s still the way we feel.”