Watching the Washington Nationals isn’t recommended if you’re a fan of offense. Often, the Nationals produce little of it. And they went away quietly again in Monday’s 6-2 interleague loss to Baltimore.
Bryce Harper was out of the lineup because of his sore knee. Jayson Werth is still sidelined because of a lingering hamstring injury. “We were down a couple of pretty good players,” Manager Davey Johnson said.
That’s true. But even if the batting order were at full strength, offense won’t carry the Nationals. Their roster wasn’t constructed to win that way. They were built on the belief that there’s nothing more important than top-notch pitching.
For the Nationals, it’s about recapturing their 2012 groove. Washington’s starters and relievers were so strong last season, they helped the batting order look good, too. No structure is sound if the foundation falters. “We’ve got to pitch,” Johnson said. “No question about it . . . that’s who we are.
“When we’re doing the things we want to do as a ballclub, when we’re playing the way we’ve played in the past and I know we’re capable of playing now, it all happens because of our pitching. That’s really who we are. That’s what you build everything around. And I see some [signs] we’re getting back to that, but you’ll still have some bumps in the road.”
The Nationals hit another big one Monday.
Beginning with last Tuesday’s 4-2 loss in 10 innings to San Francisco, the rotation strung together an impressive five-game stretch of quality starts. Gio Gonzalez seemed like the right guy to continue the momentum. After his horrendous performance in April (a 5.34 ERA told the story), Gonzalez rebounded nicely during his first four starts this month. He took a 1.67 ERA in May to the mound at Nationals Park.
Gonzalez slipped again in a shaky outing that lasted 52 / 3innings. The Orioles scored all the runs they would need in a three-run fourth. Gonzalez walked Chris Davis to start the inning and gave up four hits.
With all of their other injuries and Danny Espinosa resting because of his wrist problem, the Nationals were shorthanded on the bench. Also, the bullpen is a mess right now. Otherwise, Johnson might have lifted Gonzalez after he made so many mistakes in the fourth. These days, if an opponent takes a three-run lead against the Nationals, they’re pretty much done.
“He just didn’t go after ’em when he needed to,” Johnson said of Gonzalez. “He left a lot of pitches up.”
The good news was that Gonzalez wanted to shoulder more because of the team’s troubling injury situation and the bullpen’s struggles. “Gio today, he said, ‘I’ll save the bullpen. Let me go back out there,’ ” Johnson said. “You like to see that.”
Johnson also likes to see positive results. Gonzalez was a 21-game winner last season. At only one game above .500 (26-25) with June around the corner, the Nationals need to get more from Gonzalez and the other starters.
“I’m going to have to lean more on them,” Johnson said. “I already am, but I’m going to do it more.”
Jordan Zimmermann definitely is up for the challenge. Early on this season, Zimmermann rocketed to the No. 1 position in the rotation and has opened his lead on the pack. He’s now among baseball’s elite young starters. Go try telling anyone with the Nationals otherwise.
“He sure makes you look smart,” Johnson said. “We’ve needed him. . . . I think I’m going to keep him.”
Johnson also wants Stephen Strasburg to stay put. In his past three starts, Strasburg has shown impressive growth in his ability to channel his emotions in the right direction. He was so dominant in Sunday’s victory over Philadelphia, Johnson couldn’t help but smile recalling the performance in the Nationals’ clubhouse after Monday’s game. He needed something to cheer him up.
“Stras . . . Stras is fine,” Johnson said. “He’s not a finished product. Everyone sees the talent, they see what he can do, but they don’t see the work that has to go into it. . . . The experience is what makes him [better]. What he’s doing . . . it’s good to see.”
The Nationals aren’t certain when they’ll see Ross Detwiler pitching again. Because of a muscle injury, Detwiler will miss his scheduled turn Tuesday. “We can’t take any chances with him,” Johnson said. “We’ve got to get him right. Then we can see where we’re at [with the entire group].
“Gio has been pretty consistent lately. He’s thrown some great games. Zim has been Zim. Stras . . . really impressive. I feel good about a lot of what I’ve seen. But it’s my job to get the pitching right. That’s my responsibility. And I have to get it right. You know what I mean?”
Sure do. It’s still not late in the season, but it’s getting later. And Johnson knows the Nationals won’t move forward unless the pitching staff is able to turn back the clock.
For previous columns by Jason Reid, visit washingtonpost.com/reid.