The Nationals' sustained surge throughout most of May was triggered largely by offensive output, with a lineup that averaged a stout 6.7 runs during a 20-game stretch that resulted in a 16-4 record.
That lineup, though, has turned awfully quiet in the last two weeks. The Nationals suddenly find themselves in a full-blown slump at the plate, having scored an average of only 2.4 runs over their last 13 games, resulting in a 6-7 record.
And they may have hit rock bottom Wednesday night during an 8-0 loss to the Blue Jays that included a 93-pitch complete game by veteran left-hander Mark Buehrle.
"Tonight, you can throw that one out because Mark does that," manager Matt Williams said. "He throws balls down below the strike zone. It's about getting quality pitches to hit and taking advantage of opportunities. During that long [high-scoring] stretch that we had, we really took advantage of those opportunities that were presented to us. And it hasn't been as good lately. But it could start tomorrow."
Indeed, there's certainly enough talent in the Nationals lineup to believe things could begin to turn Thursday night when the Cubs come to town for a 4-game series. More specifically, though, things could begin to turn once the club's best hitter from 2014 finally makes his 2015 debut, an event that draws closer by the day.
Anthony Rendon's long rehab, first from a sprained knee ligament and then from a strained oblique muscle, is nearly complete. The young infielder has played five games in his latest stint with Class AA Harrisburg, including both ends of a doubleheader on Wednesday. He appears to have passed every physical test along the way and now simply needs to get his body and his swing in regular-season form.
Rendon's pending return should make a huge difference to the Nationals lineup.
"Sure. It makes us longer, certainly," Williams said. "And the way he played last year, the kind of hitter he is ... he does a lot of things well for us. It gives us good on-base percentage. It gives us a guy that can hit the ball the other way well. He can move the baseball. He's got some power, we all know that. So whenever that is, he'll certainly help us."
Truth be told, the absence of Rendon since March has been less damaging to the Nationals than most would have expected. Yunel Escobar's quality offensive game (.317 average, .378 on-base percentage) and comfort at third base, along with Danny Espinosa's surprise resurgence (six homers, .767 OPS) from the left side of the plate, has helped make up for the loss.
But lest anyone forget, Rendon was one of the best players in the NL last season (he finished fifth in MVP balloting) and the best player on the Nationals, without question. He'll be hard-pressed to be deemed the Nats' best player in 2015 unless Bryce Harper goes 0 for his next 74, but he'll be an incredibly important contributor to this club.
"Hopefully, Rendon will get back pretty soon and give us a little jolt in this lineup," Harper said. "We'll get going. We've got a great team and everybody knows that. So we'll get hot and ride it out."
Rendon alone won't cure all of the Nationals' current offensive woes. Ryan Zimmerman (6 for his last 42, with a .190 slugging percentage) needs to heat up for good. Wilson Ramos (4 for his last 37, dropping his batting average from .311 to .264 in only 14 days) needs to find a level of consistency at the plate. Ian Desmond (on pace for only 12 homers and 46 RBI) needs to rediscover the power stroke that earned him three straight Silver Slugger Awards.
Get those guys on track and get Rendon back, and the Nationals should prove to be far more of an offensive threat than they've appeared to be the last couple of weeks.
"Having Rendon back will be great," Desmond said. "Denard [Span] is slowly getting his legs back under him. ... He didn't get any spring training, so for him to get his legs back under him is going to be really important for us. Zim to get hot. Harp's obviously been swinging great. So there's a lot of good signs coming. You kinda just, like tonight, gotta wait it out."