Mike Wise: These Nationals are treading water, and threatening to drown


Nationals starter Dan Haren lasted only until the fourth inning against the Rockies in a 7-1 loss. (John McDonnell/THE WASHINGTON POST)
Mike Wise
Columnist June 22, 2013

Like Davey said before the season began, World Series or Dan Haren.

Just when it was safe to go back to the park, the Nationals brought all their liabilities to bear Saturday afternoon in a 7-1 thumping by Colorado.

Mike Wise is a sports columnist for The Washington Post. View Archive

One of the worst-hitting teams in baseball plated but one run, Ryan Zimmerman’s first home run this season at Nationals Park.

The right-hander they paid $13 million in the offseason to complement the best starting rotation in the National League, on paper, gave up his league-leading 19th homer and six runs in just 31 / 3 innings, his shortest start of the season.

Haren has four good starts, 11 lousy ones and comes across as a deer in headlights after each shelling, oblivious to what’s wrong or how to escape future danger.

Just like that, after their first three-game winning streak in more than a month, they’re back to .500 — the manager’s “World Series or bust” line looking more and more like the latter.

“I’m going to have a talk with him the next time he throws,” Davey Johnson began, “see if we can’t do something to make things better for him.”

Potomac, perhaps?

Ray Knight, a former player of Davey’s with the Mets and the MASN analyst for the team, is among the more optimistic men ever paid by an organization to say things about a team. But even he couldn’t hide his disdain Saturday, opining that reliever Ross Ohlendorf should have started instead of Haren, who in the past 362 / 3 innings has given up 50 hits and 11 home runs.

“You just can’t stay up here with that kind of pitching,” Knight said postgame.

Davey surely has a different opinion. He has to. It seems nothing anyone else says in the organization seems to quite match up with the manager’s thoughts lately, including pitching coach Steve McCatty revealing that Stephen Strasburg was on a pitch count Friday night — oh, after Davey said he wasn’t.

Or take Bryce Harper’s rehabilitation plans. The kid wants a week or so of at-bats in the minor leagues, about six games, before he tests his knee against Major League pitching again. Davey thinks he can be back in the lineup after two or three games in the minor leagues, and hopes to see Harper in Class A Potomac on Tuesday.

“The more you get the blood flowing, the more you have to heal,” Davey said. “Let’s get off the DL, guys.”

Two depressing thoughts on this issue:

In light of how much Strasburg would have given his left arm to pitch with his surgically repaired right arm last postseason, why is Bryce Hustle, an ultra-tenacious 20-year-old, so cautious about coming back — to an offense that needs his bat so desperately?

And though Davey clearly said he would err on the side of caution with Harper, it’s no secret this is his last season as a major league manager. So you wonder sometimes if Davey is more worried about how his own exit looks rather than the franchise’s future without him.

If 2013 does go down the drain, the bigger worry could be 2014 and 2015.

See, Haren’s latest bad outing is easy to dissect. But he’s gone after this season. If Mike Rizzo could have foreseen this, maybe he holds onto John Lannan. Oh well.

The bigger concern for the Nationals is what happens if this season doesn’t result in a playoff run.

Remember all those great position players under team control through at least 2015 that made Rizzo look so prescient? Jayson Werth, Zimmerman, Denard Span (all now under contract); Danny Espinosa, Ian Desmond, Steve Lombardozzi, Wilson Ramos and Anthony Rendon (all arbitration eligible).

Werth, who missed Saturday’s game with the flu, missed half the season last year due to injury. He’s played in 44 of 74 games this season. He’s a good player when healthy and a great clubhouse leader. But if a 162-game season is a marathon, if “You’ve got to show up tomorrow ready to eat somebody’s face,” as Werth said humorously last week, well, the-got-to-show-up-tomorrow part is pretty important, no?

If he doesn’t start putting up bigger numbers and the Nationals don’t catch the Braves or at least secure a wild-card berth, how much reservoir of goodwill does the greatest clutch hit in Nationals’ history buy you?

Zimmerman is a tough one because he’s played through everything. But if his defensive liabilities force a move to first base eventually, all of a sudden you’re not looking at one of the great power-hitting third basemen in the game. You’re looking at probably the 10th-best player offensively at his position. And that’s not great value for what Washington is paying him.

Espinosa is in the minors, and who knows if he ever makes it back, and Ramos has his own injury problems.

Bottom line, they better start playing better than .500 ball and start winning most of their remaining series and make up ground before September. Or else the “plan” doesn’t make half the sense it did before this season.

Everyone in this sport loves to say, “There’s a lot of baseball left to be played.” But when the manager’s major highlight of the day is the long reliever who saved the bullpen in a rout, it’s not too encouraging.

Ross Ohlendorf can do a lot of good things. But he can’t be the reason for optimism for more than a few days a season.

It’s time to make hay, guys — now.

For more by Mike Wise, go to washingtonpost.com/wise.

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