Overhauled Offense Shows Promise

Nick Johnson and Lastings Milledge are part of a revamped lineup that is showing it could be a potent offense. "There's a lot of people who can hurt you," Ryan Zimmerman said.
Nick Johnson and Lastings Milledge are part of a revamped lineup that is showing it could be a potent offense. "There's a lot of people who can hurt you," Ryan Zimmerman said. (By Drew Hallowell -- Getty Images)
By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 2, 2008

On Opening Day in 2007, the Washington Nationals' first hitter was Felipe López, now grappling with his role as a reserve. Their cleanup man was Austin Kearns, a right-handed hitter who had only once hit as many as 20 homers in a year. Brian Schneider, who had never driven in more than 55 runs, hit sixth, a lofty spot for a defensive-minded catcher. And Nook Logan, a flailing switch hitter, hit eighth, rounding out the lineup that would produce fewer runs than any in baseball.

It is difficult to overhaul an offense in just one year, particularly without major free agent signings. The Nationals, though, may have done just that. The lineup they rolled out for Sunday night's opener included just one player -- third baseman and resident hero Ryan Zimmerman -- in the same spot as last year. Only two other players, shortstop Cristian Guzmán and right fielder Kearns, returned from the 2007 Opening Day lineup.

Through two games -- a tiny sample size that makes drawing conclusions decidedly dangerous -- the changes are already showing. In beginning the season 2-0 for the first time since the franchise arrived in Washington, the Nationals appear to have the best offense they have offered since baseball returned to the District.

That is, of course, not exactly a high bar. Since 2005, the Nationals have finished last, tied for 10th and last in runs in the National League. In the 2005-07 seasons combined, they were last in the majors in runs, batting average and slugging percentage, last in the NL in home runs.

But given new players (center fielder Lastings Milledge, catcher Paul Lo Duca) and better health (first baseman Nick Johnson and Guzmán), Washington feels as if it can change the game in ways it couldn't before. There already is some evidence. Last season, it took until their 19th game to even once score four runs in an inning. Monday, in their second game of 2008, they did it twice.

"Pretty impressive," Zimmerman said. "There's a lot of people who can hurt you. It doesn't really put the pressure on one person, and doesn't make you try to do too much."

Zimmerman, of course, relieved the pressure in Sunday's opener against Atlanta, lining a tiebreaking solo homer with two outs in the bottom of the ninth, delivering a 3-2 victory at Nationals Park. That, though, is his only hit in his first eight at-bats. That the Nationals scored 11 runs with just a sacrifice fly from their best hitter would have seemed absurd a year ago. And given that potential sluggers Wily Mo Peña (strained oblique) and Elijah Dukes (strained hamstring) are both on the disabled list, the threat for power could increase before April is over.

Consider, though, what else goes into this potential overhaul. Start with Johnson, who is hitting cleanup. When Johnson missed all of 2007 with a broken right leg, Dmitri Young filled in admirably, hitting a career-best .320 -- a full 30 points higher than Johnson hit in 2006, his career year.

That comparison, though, masks Johnson's true impact on the lineup. Even in a season in which Young was an all-star, his on-base percentage was .378, his slugging percentage .491. Both are respectable numbers. Johnson's numbers the previous year -- .428 OBP, .520 slugging -- were among the best in the NL.

Now, as Manager Manny Acta said of Johnson, "He's back."

"Hasn't missed a beat," Kearns said.

"I think he might be better," Zimmerman said. "He's in better shape."

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