The Washington Nationals may have found their weak spot. It’s called the offense.

The Post Sports Live crew talks about Bryce Harper’s head-on collision with the outfield wall in Dodgers stadium during Monday night’s game. (Post Sports Live)
Thomas Boswell
Columnist May 17, 2013

Last year when the Nationals had injuries to regulars or slumps by key hitters, they found ways to compensate with poised rookies, bench players or inspired contributions until offensive reinforcements arrived to save the day.

This year, the Nats have sounded the cavalry trumpets again. But the guys riding over the hill have all had wet powder or empty muskets.

Tom Boswell is a Washington Post sports columnist. View Archive

As the Nats’ season passed the one-quarter mark, only two teams had scored fewer runs and their closest stat neighbor was the pathetic Marlins.

Washington once again has baseball’s second-best pitching staff, by ERA. The Nats are actually better this year, through Thursday night: 3.28 to 3.33. Rafael Soriano and Dan Haren have upgraded the bullpen and rotation. Jordan Zimmermann leads the majors in wins.

But an atrocious offense has blighted their efforts. When the Nats score at least three runs, their pitchers are so good they’ve gone 19-2. But almost half the time (20 of 41 games), the Nats only get a sickly two runs or fewer. Any team would go 3-17 with such non-support. Give these hurlers a tad of help and they may run the table.

The Nationals’ Bryce Harper’s unusal swing has been compared to the likes of baseball legend Babe Ruth. This animation shows just how similar the two players are. (The Washington Post)

So is it time for the Nats to risk some changes to their offense for the sake of controlling events before events control them?

Last year, the Nats were 10th in MLB in scoring, averaging 4.51 runs a game. Now, it’s 3.51. What, an entire run misplaced? In baseball, that’s astronomical. A loss of 162 runs in a season could cost about 18 wins. Yet if the Nats were even an average offense, they might sweep past the Braves, who entered Friday in an 10-17 skid and led the National League East by a half-game. Get the offense fixed, grab another flag.

How? Here are the suggestions I read, or hear screamed, most often.

Danny Espinosa is hitting .177. That brings his “slump” to about 1,000 at-bats since the 2011 All-Star Game. Maybe it’s not a slump. Maybe that’s him. So should Steve Lombardozzi play second base? Give him a chance.

Ryan Zimmerman has hit one home run but made eight errors this year. He’s also been on the disabled list. Does a black cloud accompany every $100 million extension? Someday, Zimmerman will probably move to first base anyway. Why not take a load off his mind and remove his .896 fielding percentage from his pitchers’ backs by switching him to first base sooner?

When? The instant Anthony Rendon, hitting .348 at Class AA, looks ready. Make him the third baseman of the present, not just the future.

When that day comes, trade first baseman Adam LaRoche. He’s on a 13-game hitting streak. His stock is rising again. When you can get decent value for him, trade for a quality left-handed reliever. Maybe it was a mistake to re-sign him instead of keeping Michael Morse, who has 10 homers in Seattle. But at least cut your losses.

Jayson Werth is still on the disabled list. Every year it’s something. Can’t hit with a new contract. Missed half the Nats’ games last year. Has missed a third of the games this year with only 10 RBI. He’ll turn 34 next week. Maybe young Tyler Moore would shake his slump if he got some of Werth’s playing time in the outfield.

Shake things up. How can the Nats do worse? Zimmerman, Werth, Espinosa, Denard Span and the entire Nats bench have hit only 11 home runs all season. Bryce Harper has 11 homers by himself.

Each of these ideas, in isolation, sounds sane or at least not totally nuts. But put them together and they come into focus: the different faces of panic.

The most important and irritating word in baseball is “wait.” Wait for the pitch to get to the plate before you swing. Wait for enough innings and games to mount up before you reach conclusions. Always look at long-term data for meaning and short-term data for noise.

But it’s so hard. And it’s just not fun. Last year, after 70 games, I extrapolated where the Nats staff might stand in history with its 2.95 ERA and such. “After you wrote that, we started getting whacked,” pitching coach Steve McCatty told me last week. “So, workin’ on another one like that?”

Yes, this one on the Nats’ offense tjhat’s obviously irredeemably awful.

If the Nats don’t repeat in the NL East or miss the playoffs, the offense will likely be the cause. The Nats created a domino effect when they traded for Span and switched Harper to left field, thus committing themselves to subtract either Morse or LaRoche. Deleting one power hitter from the lineup wasn’t an obvious danger to the whole cohesion of the offense — on paper. But then real baseball arrived.

As Werth, Zimmerman and Wilson Ramos went on the DL, as Espinosa and LaRoche spent weeks under .200, it became clear that the lineup lacked “length.” Span did his leadoff job, but the whole lineup behind him suddenly looked malnourished. Subs like Moore, Roger Bernadina, Chad Tracy and Lombardozzi (hitting a collective .181) seemed as overwhelmed by their opportunities as they were energized by them last year.

When the Nats are fairly healthy or when the center of their batting order is hot, they have enough offense. LaRoche has hit .380 in his last 13 games, Zimmerman .360 and Ian Desmond has 21 extra-base hits. Two days after failing to drill his silhouette through the Dodger Stadium scoreboard, Harper hit a 431-foot homer Wednesday. Werth will be back in a few days.

So the Nats may soon start raking. But the big picture still has a shadow on it. Every team has a scenario that haunts it. The Nats now know theirs: periods of offensive starvation when faced with just two or three injuries or slumps to their key two-through-six hitters.

By late last year, the Nats’ lineup had a margin for error and mutual reinforcement. Now, as soon as one player gets nicked and another goes 1 for 15, the spooky music starts playing. Can they scratch out three runs?

Soon, the Nats could be firing on all cylinders again, an impressive sight. But injuries and slumps never cease. The Nats spent the winter improving their pitching and outfield defense. But, by choice, they may have left themselves one big bat short of season-long offensive stability.

So save those crazy panic ideas. A couple may still come in handy.

For previous columns by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/
boswell
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