The Nationals were 8-3 after 11 games last season. This year, after Saturday’s 11th game, a 3-1 loss to Atlanta, they are 7-4. So why does it feel like these Nats are playing nowhere near their 2012 level? Because their defense and bullpen are struggling? Because No. 1 starter Stephen Strasburg is now 1-2? Because they’ve lost two games in less than 24 hours to their division rivals?
“That’s why you play 162 games,” said second baseman Danny Espinosa, who has struggled mightily at the plate but whose first homer of the season was also the Nats’ only run on Saturday.
Espinosa’s display of power — he’s hitting .175 — was one of the game’s surprises. The bigger one: Third baseman Ryan Zimmerman committed a throwing error that led to two unearned runs. That error came on the heels of another Friday night that sent that game into extra innings and resulted in a 6-4 loss to the Braves.
Every time he fielded a ball Saturday, you could sense the Nats fans in the sellout crowd at Nationals Park holding their collective breath. They’re not used to seeing Zimmerman as fallible, but the former human highlight reel is coming off November shoulder surgery. “I think he’s throwing a lot better,” Manager Davey Johnson said, but he also admitted that Zimmerman is “playing deeper. He’s got to get more confident playing deeper.”
Strasburg didn’t have a bad start — the two runs he allowed were unearned, and he walked just one and struck out seven. On the other hand, he had a wild pitch and hit a batter. He threw 112 pitches in six innings.
“He was throwing good. He didn’t have much command,” said Johnson, who also pointed out that Atlanta starter Tim Hudson — 2-0 this season and 3-0 lifetime vs. Strasburg — threw “a heck of a ballgame.”
Johnson called Strasburg his horse, saying, “We need to give him every chance to win that ballgame.” But at 112 pitches, there wasn’t a chance Strasburg would pitch the seventh inning. Enter the bullpen.
Ross Detwiler left Friday night’s game with a 3-1 lead, only to see the bullpen — and Zimmerman’s error — blow that. But don’t expect to see a Nats starter throw a complete game anytime soon, and don’t expect Johnson to change the way his uses his pitching staff.
“They’re going to go deeper as the season goes on,” Johnson said of his starters. “The bullpen . . . their command hasn’t been as good as the starters.”
Until Saturday, the bullpen was essentially five guys (without the burgers) — Rafael Soriano, Drew Storen, Tyler Clippard, Ryan Mattheus and Craig Stammen. Zach Duke and Henry Rodriguez were the odd men out.
Saturday, both got a chance and both pitched fairly well, giving up no runs and no hits, although Rodriguez did walk two in the eighth. He still managed to shake off a bad call at second base, when catcher Wilson Ramos threw a perfect ball to Espinosa to catch Justin Upton stealing second — only to have umpire Brian O’Nora call Upton safe. In the ninth, however, Mattheus gave up three hits and a run.
Asked to describe his bullpen’s performance this season, Johnson said, “Spotty.” But he was more worried about Ramos, who pulled a hamstring trying to beat out a ball hit back at the pitcher in the eighth inning. Ramos had rehabbed his way back from knee surgery that cost him much of the 2012 season, and his injury further dampened the mood in the Nats’ quiet clubhouse.
In addition to the loss of his top catcher, Johnson’s bullpen problem remains: It includes, basically, three closers — Soriano, who was signed for the job; Storen, who had it until he was hurt last season; and Clippard, who filled in during Storen’s absence. It’s not an ideal situation.
“The different makeup in the bullpen, with more guys who have closed, we haven’t really gotten in a good rotation” with the relievers, Johnson admitted. “That usually takes more than a couple weeks of the season.”
It’s April, but the Nats shouldn’t dawdle. It’s April in Atlanta, too, and the Braves appear strong — and that’s without catcher Brian McCann, first baseman Freddie Freeman and reliever Jonny Venters. Yes, that’s why you play 162 games. But the Nats are at 151 and counting.
For previous columns by Tracee Hamilton, visit washingtonpost.com/