Nats Need a Leader With a Powerful Bat

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 10, 2007

During a winter largely spent addressing behind-the-scenes needs -- the scouting department, the minor league system -- much attention was focused on the Washington Nationals' starting rotation, a group in which John Patterson would be the highest-paid member, making $850,000. Manager Manny Acta didn't hide that fact, but instead focused on the reasons he thought his team would be competitive.

"A lot of teams," he said late in spring training, "would like to have my position players."

But through a dreadful seven-game start to the season, the Nationals' position players -- some of whom are considered building blocks for the future -- have struggled mightily. Yes, the team's 5.86 ERA is last in the National League, a fact that wasn't wholly unexpected. But even with a small sample size, the early offensive numbers are troubling: an average of 2.6 runs per game, second-to-last in the league, with only one output of more than three runs, the seven the team collected in its only win.

Acta and the players said over the weekend that the inability to score is a short-term problem, that all teams go through such funks, and the Nationals' struggle is simply more scrutinized because it's at the beginning of the season during an inarguably shaky start.

"I think we were waiting for the key hit all week, and it wasn't happening," second baseman Ronnie Belliard said. "But when it happens, it's going to happen a lot."

But from who? The Nationals are without regular cleanup hitter Nick Johnson, still recovering from a broken leg suffered last September. Though his replacement, Dmitri Young, has performed admirably (.292, tied for the team lead with four RBI), Johnson offers a completely different look because of his ability to consistently get on base, creating more opportunities for the players behind him.

Though the two injuries the Nationals suffered in the season's first week -- a strained hamstring for shortstop Cristian Guzman and a hyperextended foot for center fielder Nook Logan -- hurt the team's defense more than its offense, the lineup suddenly lacks speed.

Moreover, observers wonder who is the real threat, the man who will make pitchers cower each time up.

"Who, in that lineup, are you going to rely on to get the big hit day-in and day-out?" said one scout who watched the Nationals throughout the spring. "They don't have a guy like that."

So with the group that is currently assembled, someone will have to step forward and show a consistent ability to drive in runners. That didn't happen during the first week.

As mediocre as the team's overall offensive performance was -- its .245 batting average ranked 11th in the NL entering last night's games -- it was downright putrid with runners in scoring position. In such situations, the Nationals hit .140 (8 for 57) with a .227 on-base percentage, both the worst in baseball. Their .211 slugging percentage with runners in scoring position ranks 29th of 30 teams.

"It's just something where we've had some good at-bats with guys in scoring position, and some guys have hit the ball hard and just haven't found the hole," right fielder Austin Kearns said.

"That's all you can do is have a good at-bat. The longer it goes, the more you hear about it, and sometimes you try harder -- and it usually works the opposite way."

Plus, there are players in important spots who have never faced any of the pitchers they're seeing now. Left fielder Kory Casto had never seen a pitch above Class AA before he was inserted into the starting lineup last Tuesday because of Logan's injury. Casto is hitting .174 (4 for 23) to start the year, but has been second in the order.

"You can watch as much film as you want, but this is just education on the fly," Casto said. "That's part of being a rookie. You got to learn what these guys throw. You've got to see them."

The players, then, are saying they will be resilient through all this. But the offensive struggles -- and, indeed, the overall performance -- is putting an immediate focus on the club's young leadership group of catcher Brian Schneider, Zimmerman, Kearns and infielder Felipe Lopez, the players singled out by Acta to help hold things together in the clubhouse. Will that group be able to convey how to handle these struggles?

"If they can't handle it this year, I don't know what year they'd be able to handle it," Zimmerman said. "There's no expectations. For people to be nervous or people to get uptight -- there's no reason to. No one's expecting us to win. . . . I don't think anybody has anything to be afraid of."

The fear, though, is that this early-season funk won't end soon. Atlanta and the New York Mets, the two teams the Nationals face on the six-game road trip that starts tonight, rank fifth and first in ERA in the NL (3.32 and 1.38, respectively).

The Nationals have already been beaten, in the first week, by nearly every type of pitcher -- a former rookie of the year (Florida's Dontrelle Willis), a rookie making his first start (Arizona's Micah Owings), and a pitcher they once had but traded away (Arizona's Livan Hernandez).

If the slow start continues, how will this group hold together mentally?

"We'll find out," Schneider said. "It's still early, so everyone's hoping it doesn't linger. But you do have a bunch of guys you hope don't get disappointed. It takes a toll on everyone, not just the young guys.

"Obviously, I get [ticked] off and mad after games. Nobody wants to come here and lose. It's hard to stay positive at times, but you have to. If not, it's going to be a really long year."

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