Nationals pitching coach Mike Maddux surveyed the clubhouse with a contented expression, as close to a smile as his poker-face allows. Assistant general manager Bob Boone, a big leaguer for 19 years who provides a professorial ear to Nats with any problem, worked the same room with a somber, determined expression.
Maddux and Boone represent the two opposite — and equally surprising — aspects of the Nats’ 14-7 season so far. As the team heads out on a 10-game road trip to play the St. Louis Cardinals, the world champion Kansas City Royals and preseason World Series favorite Chicago Cubs, they are a ballclub divided in half. The hitting, which supposedly could, hasn’t; and the pitching, which maybe couldn’t, has.
That trend continued Thursday in a 3-0 loss as the Phillies swept a three-game series in which the total score was 10-3. The Nats’ Tanner Roark pitched seven scoreless innings, allowing just two hits for the second straight start, following his 15-strikeout career showpiece Saturday with six more K’s. But the Nats, with six hitters batting under .181, entered the ninth 0-0, then lost as Felipe Rivero and Jonathan Papelbon allowed three runs. That seriously dampened a previously hot April.
Maddux was cheery because he had returned from a bullpen session with the only pitcher on his staff who wasn’t on a roll: ace Max Scherzer, whose 4.35 ERA and five gopher balls in four starts have caused worries. What was wrong with Scherzer’s fastball? Velocity, fine. Arm, healthy. Location, lousy. The Nats led the majors in ERA (2.31) entering Thursday despite a faltering $210 million man. If he got fixed, that would pick up slack when Joe Ross (0.54), Gio Gonzalez (1.42), Stephen Strasburg (2.17) or Roark (2.63) gets hiccups.
“Max is his own best pitching coach. We got everything right,” Maddux said. “We tried to discover this little mechanical thing that was wrong. He said, ‘Yeah, that’s it!’ And it was. Great ’pen [session].”
Run through Maddux's staff, man by man, searching for other significant problems; at the moment, they haven’t arrived. In Roark’s previous start, the 29-year-old righty, who won 15 games in 2014 and showed serious promise as a sturdy but not flashy starter, had what may be a breakout game: 15 strikeouts in seven scoreless innings against the Twins, a hot-hitting team when they arrived in D.C.
In that game, Roark showed a new pitch-selection pattern. Normally, he’s a sinker-slider pitcher (72 percent of pitches) who uses his four-seam fastball, curveball and change-up as occasional contrasts; yet, in 2014, advanced statistics showed all of his pitches were above-average by MLB standards. Against the Twins, Roark threw 64 sinkers or sliders, but he also used 57 pitches that were a contrast to that style.
“I was most happy about the adjustment he made,” Maddux said. “Instead of just sinker-slider to one side of the plate, he was using all pitches to both sides of the plate.”
That’s a strategy that you don’t have to keep secret — because if you have the command to trust five pitches to two sides of the plate, hitters can’t guess along with the pitcher successfully even if they try.
No staff stays as effective as the Nats have been for months at a time. The Cards, Royals and Cubs may interrupt that April roll. But for now, all Maddux has on his wish list is, “Stay healthy.”
In another corner of the same clubhouse, Jayson Werth, with 20 strikeouts in 61 at-bats, talked earnestly with Boone as they stood at his locker, going through the mutual pantomime of hitter and instructor that probably goes back to Sunny Jim Bottomley and some unknown hitting guru, maybe Abe Lincoln.
“Sorry, I’m in my office. You can’t see the door — it’s invisible. But it’s closed right now. I’m workin’, ” said Werth, pleasant but as serious as a .180 batting average when you’re 36 years old.
Twenty intense minutes later, the confab broke up.
“Are you going to talk to Anthony Rendon [one RBI] and Ryan Zimmerman [one home run] next?” I asked Boone.
“Those are the three guys,” he answered. “We gotta get ’em going. Let’s go. Let’s get the brain right.”
Maddux has worked statistical marvels with bad staffs in Milwaukee and Texas, transforming them immediately into contender-worthy despite no “name” stars such as Scherzer, Strasburg, Gonzalez or Papelbon. So, once you factor out the weak April foes, the Nats’ pitching may stay very good.
The real mystery is that Rendon, Zimmerman and Werth, who have always hit when they were healthy, have completely failed to capitalize on the torrid starts of Bryce Harper and Daniel Murphy, who hit No. 3 and No. 5. Rendon should see scads of fat pitches hitting in front of Harper. Zimmerman, at cleanup, refers to Harper as simply “the guy who is on base every time I come up.” Werth should be in the same catbird seat batting behind Murphy and his .462 on-base percentage.
Yet the trio’s on-base-plus-slugging marks are poor to horrid: .566, .624 and .679 . On Thursday, Rendon was not in the starting lineup (nor was the slumping young Michael A. Taylor). Manager Dusty Baker said their days off had been scheduled far in advance. With time, we’ll see whether this is a convenient explanation from a “players’ manager” for a brief head-clearing, kick-in-the-pants benching.
The Nats and their fans are about to get lots of answers about their club. They’re improved. But how much? Is their bad bullpen of last season merely a bit better now or is it actually, as the numbers so far say, actually good? Will stiff tests bring out the best in the Nats’ hitters or the worst in their pitchers?
“There are three or four times on the schedule you say, ‘Hey, this is going be a heck of a road trip. This is going be a barometer to see how good we are right now,’ ” Baker said. “It’s going be exciting.”
The Nats actually have 30 straight games ahead that are as tough as you could concoct. After this trip, they face six games against the Mets in a home-and-home series, plus four more with the Cards. Between now and June 1, baseball may feel plenty exciting, but like a fight for survival, too. April was set up to have fun. The Nats took advantage. Now the thorough examination begins in earnest.