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?”
’Keep it simple’
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.”