ST. LOUIS – Late Thursday afternoon, the Washington Nationals packed for Pittsburgh and perhaps left some defective bats behind. They had lost two straight games, but they found solace by glancing at the standings, the calendar and the disabled list.
The Nationals had lost, 5-0, to the St. Louis Cardinals and been the victims of Kyle Lohse’s two-hit shutout. Only singles by Jayson Werth in the fourth inning and Michael Morse in the fifth separated the 32-year-old right-hander with a 4.76 career ERA from a no-hitter. Afterward, though, the Nationals insisted the slump that has stuck with them for most of the season is only a temporary nuisance, not an upsetting signal for the next five months.
Even with the losses, the Nationals are at .500 despite a dearth of offense and having played 10 games without third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, who is rehabbing a strained abdominal muscle. And anyway, the season hasn’t hit yet May. That is how and why the Nationals choose to find encouragement, not disappointment, after getting two-hit by Lohse.
“All in all, that’s basically how things are going for us,” Werth said. “We’re right at .500 without our best player and nobody’s hitting. Get the bats going, and hopefully Zim can get healthy and I think we’re going to be fine. As tough as it’s been going for us, we’re not in bad shape. I don’t really know any one person on this team that has reached their potential with the bat this season. We’ll get that going, and we’ll be fine.”
The Nationals had seemingly shed their offensive funk early this week, when they scored 21 runs on 32 hits in three games, all wins. But they have seven hits and one earned run in the past two games, and their last extra-base hit came 19 innings ago. Thursday, they were shut out for the third time in 18 games.
The absence of Zimmerman, one of the best players in baseball, was bound to show at some point. Washington is 6-4 since he went on the disabled list, but its offense desperately needs another powerful bat. The Nationals have a .218 batting average, a .305 on-base percentage and a .333 slugging percentage — respectively ranking last, 27th and 28th in the majors.
But, they will remind you, it’s early.
“I’d say a month from now, if we’re right here, we might need to change our approach a little bit,” first baseman Adam LaRoche said. “For right now, guys are confident. We’re working on stuff daily.”
The most high-profile hitter searching for his swing at the moment is Werth. He has a .293 on-base percentage this season, and after every game he wraps his left knee in ice. In his last 29 at-bats, Werth has five hits, all singles, and no walks, a surprising figure for such a patient, disciplined hitter.
“It’s coming along,” Werth said. “I’m struggling a little bit. My at-bats have been good for the most part and I’m seeing the ball good. It’s just a few technical changes here and there, and I’ll be all right. But the results aren’t there right now, so I can’t say too much.”
Thursday, Lohse shut the Nationals down and pitched perhaps the best game of his life, with precise control. Nine of his 111 pitches traveled 90 mph, none faster. He threw 72 strikes. Lohse struck out six, but the Nationals swung and missed only seven times all game.
“I’ve seen him kind of a lot over the years,” Werth said. “And that was probably the best I’ve seen him pitch.”
Said Manager Jim Riggleman: “He had us reaching, and he was on the edges and didn’t give us many balls to square up.”
It hardly would have mattered who pitched. Though inefficient, Tom Gorzelanny kept the Nationals in the game, allowing a two-run home run to Matt Holliday in the first inning, but no other damage. He needed 108 pitches in five innings, but the Nationals trailed by only two when he exited.
“A lot of things weren’t working today,” Gorzelanny said. “I just had to find a way to get through it. It’s just one of those days where nothing really felt good.”
The Cardinals tore the game open when Albert Pujols slammed a two-run home run off Collin Balester in the eighth. Equipped with a five-run lead, the Cardinals could start thinking about their next game.
Zimmerman is eligible to come off the disabled list Monday, but the Nationals will not consider letting him begin baseball activities until they return home from Pittsburgh, head athletic trainer Lee Kuntz said. The Nationals will play at least another eight games without him.
Riggleman likened Zimmerman’s prospective return to adding a player in a trade. Until then, though, the Nationals will try to continue to stay afloat, and try to find a way to score runs, without him.
“I don’t really think about that, you know?” Riggleman said. “There’s no solution to that. Zim’s not here. We’ll just welcome him back when he gets back.”