In different conditions, LaRoche’s bobble may have been forgotten, lost amid Andrew McCutchen’s continued bludgeoning of the Nationals and the return from the disabled list of Ryan Zimmerman, who went 0 for 4 with four strikeouts and, more happily, made strong throws after all three balls hit to him. Currently, though, the Nationals’ dearth of runs makes every play a potential hinge.
On Friday, the Nationals struck out 14 times, seven of those looking, nine in seven innings coming against Pirates right-hander A.J. Burnett, who became the latest starter to steamroll the Nationals. They have, among other assets, a base-clogging leader in Denard Span, a generational slugger in Bryce Harper and an all-star shortstop in Ian Desmond. So far, the assembled talent has added up only to one of the league’s least productive offenses.
“We’re kind of hitting rock bottom,” Manager Davey Johnson said. “We just need to man up. Let’s go. Let’s start doing things we’re capable of doing.”
They have scored three runs or fewer in 12 of their past 15 games, including the last six. The Nationals finished Friday night with a collective .669 OPS and a .291 on-base percentage, both better only than the woeful Miami Marlins in the National League. Their 3.4 runs per game ranked third-worst in the majors. The team-wide slump prevented the Nationals from capitalizing on the momentum gathered from dominant starts by Jordan Zimmermann and Dan Haren.
Johnson was particularly perturbed by the Nationals’ seven strikeouts looking. He wanted his hitters to show more aggression early in the count, and to show more discipline on balls out of the zone. Shortstop Ian Desmond gave Burnett credit — “he pitched a really good game,” Desmond said — but Johnson thought the Nationals could have used a better approach.
“He had a fastball that was coming back over the plate,” Johnson said. “Guys were giving up on balls away. We’ve got to make adjustments. We’ve got a lot better hitters than we’re showing.”
If there is hopeful sign, it is that the Nationals have been here before. After 30 games last season, the Nationals possessed a .664 OPS and had scored 102 runs – precisely the same number as this season. The difference? After a red-hot start, those Nationals had settled at 18-12. These Nationals have wobbled to 15-15.