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Sweep exposes Nats' lineup woes

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Sweep exposes Nats' lineup woes

That the Nationals could get swept by the Yankees over a frustrating week of baseball and still emerge holding a four-game lead in the NL East is a tribute to how far this organization has come.

That they could own baseball's fourth-best record in mid-June despite their two best offensive players from 2011 collectively hitting .225 with three homers, 26 RBI and a paltry .604 OPS is downright remarkable.

For much of the last 2 12 months, the Nationals have managed to win games in spite of that lack of production from the heart of their lineup, specifically Ryan Zimmerman and Michael Morse. Eventually, though, manager Davey Johnson knew he was going to need to count on those big bats producing in big spots, and it finally happened this weekend.

In dropping three straight games to the Yankees -- including Sunday's 4-1 series finale -- the Nationals scored a total of six runs. The biggest culprits: Zimmerman and Morse, who went a combined 4-for-26 with one RBI.

How difficult is it to beat the beasts of the AL East with so little offense generated from those two?

"It makes it hard, unfortunately," first baseman Adam LaRoche said. "Really, it's been the story of the year. We haven't had our whole lineup going yet and we're still in pretty good shape. All that comes back to our pitching. Which has been great. And I thought they were pretty good these three days. We just did nothing for them."

All things considered, the Nationals couldn't be disappointed with their pitching performance against a fearsome New York lineup. Their starters posted a 3.50 ERA in the series and gave their team a chance to win each of these three games.

But their lineup couldn't seize the opportunities, and the team as a whole paid the price for it.

"Offensively we're just coming up a little short," Johnson said. "Only thing that really concerns me: We've got to get Zim going. Need to get Zim in a happy place."

Zimmerman has been anything but happy during what has been a surprisingly frustrating 2 12 months on an individual level despite his team's overall success. The foundation of the Nationals' lineup through six previous lean years, he's become one of its biggest liabilities.

The low point may well have come Sunday during an 0-for-4 afternoon that saw Zimmerman see a total of only seven pitches from New York right-hander Ivan Nova. He swung and missed one of those pitches, fouled off one, took two called strikes and made outs on the remaining three.

The end result: Zimmerman, a career .288 hitter with a .479 slugging percentage entering 2012, is now batting .229 with a .323 slugging percentage.

"Obviously I'm not doing as well as I want to," he said. "I think any time you're not getting hits like that, something has to change. I've just got to keep working hard and keep doing the same things I've done my whole career, and it'll turn around. The worst thing you can do is panic and try to change everything. We've still got three-and-a-half, four months left, and I plan to continue to work and work out of this thing and help us win more games."

Zimmerman missed two weeks in late-April and early-May with a sprained right shoulder, but he insists he's healthy now. Besides, he always said the injury affected him only in the field, not at the plate.

So what's causing this dramatic drop-off in offensive production?

"I don't know," Johnson said. "He's such a great athlete and such a talented player, I haven't had much conversation with him about it. "But this week I'm going to sit down with him and try to figure it out."

Morse has more of a built-in excuse, having only returned two weeks ago from a 2-month stint on the DL with a torn lat muscle. Still, the man who led the Nationals with 31 homers, 95 RBI and a .303 average one year ago understands he needs to start contributing soon.

"I feel great. I feel good," he said. "I'm just not getting what I wish would happen, but it will come."

The Nationals would have loved for those lineup stalwarts to locate their mojo over the weekend during what was a highly anticipated series that drew three straight sellout crowds to South Capitol Street.

It didn't happen, and so the bitter taste of a series sweep will be left in everyone's mouths until they return to the field Tuesday night against the Rays.

In the bigger picture, though, the Nationals seem to understand this weekend didn't make or break their season. Thanks to the foibles of the Braves, Mets, Marlins and Phillies, they still emerge with a four-game lead in the division.

"We're in first place for a reason," Morse said. "We've battled our butts off all year, and we're going to continue to do that."

Not that anyone was trying to take this thumping at the hands of the big, bad Yankees a learning experience. As Zimmerman put it: "I think this team is past that kind of stuff."

Besides, a three-game losing streak in June means little to a ballclub that has lofty expectations for itself.

"It's not October yet," rookie Bryce Harper said. "That's how you look at it. It's not October yet. We've still got a long season. We've still got a lot of games left."

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Washington Nationals second half preview

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Washington Nationals second half preview

The second half of the 2018 MLB season gets underway tonight, and the Nats find themselves on the outside looking in at the playoff picture right now.

In order for them to get past the Braves, Phillies, Diamondbacks, Brewers, etc., a number of things will have to go right in D.C. over the next 65-ish games.

A few questions will be hanging over the franchise these next few months, so to help break down what to look for during the Nats’ second half, I enlisted some fellow NBC Sports Washington writers to help me out, roundtable-style.

Without further ado, here are some second-half predictions.

Contributors:

Ryan Wormeli - @RyanWarmly
Cam Ellis - @KingsleyEllis
Michaela Johnson - @mjohnson262
Tyler Byrum - @theTylerByrum

Most important player in the second half:

Ryan Wormeli: Stephen Strasburg.

Everyone knows Max Scherzer is going to dominate as the Nats’ ace, and everyone knows Bryce Harper will hit home runs. In fact, assuming health, everyone knows the team will be pretty good at most spots. Strasburg, however, is the one that can take the Nats, to quote former Maryland coach Randy Edsall, from “good to great.” If he’s elite as their number two starter, this team is making the playoffs. Book it.

Cam Ellis: Bryce Harper.

Michaela Johnson: Bryce Harper, in the sense that it’s critical he gets hot again. Hopefully, his Home Run Derby win sparks something.

Tyler Byrum: Gio Gonzalez. 

There are a couple of ways to look at this. Of course, Bryce Harper needs to be better and Stephen Strasburg has to come back fully healthy from the disabled list for them to even have a chance. Even if those two do that though, it probably will not be enough to make a climb in the division. 

Last year Gonzalez had easily the second-best season of his career. With a 15-9 record and a 2.96 ERA in 2017, Gonzalez could easily be a No. 2 pitcher on half of the teams in the major. This season his ERA is sitting at 3.72 and has only won six of the 19 games he started. More than just looking at his stats, his outings are short too, making it to the seventh inning only three times this year. Additionally, the two-time All-Star is on pace to strike out the fewest batters this season than in the past decade.

Max Scherzer will get the Nationals a win once a week, hopefully Strasburg will get it done too, but Gonzalez is the Wild Card.

Nationals X-factor:

Ryan: An X-factor is someone whose play can dramatically impact the team’s success. If they’re successful, the team wins. If they play poorly, the team suffers.

This can apply to a number of players on the Nats, but I’m going to go with Juan Soto. He’s already exceeded expectations all season long, and helped keep the team afloat. They probably wouldn’t be within shouting distance of the postseason without the young phenom.

If Soto maintains his abnormally strong play while the rest of the team gets it going, the ceiling on this team is higher than any in the National League besides maybe the Dodgers and Cubs. If not, then they can still be okay, but probably not good enough.

Cam: Stephen Strasburg.

Michaela: Daniel Murphy. Since returning from injury he’s been solid, batting .324 in July. Davey Martinez has good discretion when it comes to resting vs. playing guys coming off injury, and I foresee a strong comeback for Murphy.

Tyler: Bryce Harper.

This is Harper’s team and it always will be with him on the roster. Yes, that .214 batting average is not going to win him a pennant, but Harper is so much more to this team. The 2018 Home Run Derby champion has to bring the fire to the Nationals night-in and night-out, whether or not he is able to get hits on the board. 

Some people want to question his leadership ability (we’re not going to touch that topic), but he needs to inspire his guys in the clubhouse.

Show us the Harper that we saw at the derby, even with a poor batting average, and we’ll see a different team out on the field in the second half.

Will the Nationals make the playoffs?

Ryan: I’m actually very on the fence about this question. I’m going to say yes, but it’s like 51-49. I just am too impressed with the Braves and Phillies, and the latter especially seems keen on making an aggressive move at the trade deadline.

Cam: Yes, BUT it'll be the wild card game at Nats Park and extremely stressful.

Michaela: If I was making a call based on what we’ve seen in the first half, obviously not. But I have high expectations for the second half based on a Harper resurgence and Murph recovery, so I’m going to say yes.

Tyler: Yes. There is too much talent on this roster for them not to. With Strasburg coming back it will be more than just Scherzer dealing out there. The Philadelphia Phillies should cool down at some point too and it will be a two-headed race between the Nats and the Atlanta Braves for the division.

More likely scenario: Bryce Harper is traded at the deadline OR he signs a long term extension in D.C.

Ryan: I figure everyone will say he signs a long term extension, and I’m not going to swim against the current here. It’s highly, highly unlikely that he’s traded at the deadline, but given the national conversation surrounding his future in the nation’s capital, I thought it was at least worth asking.

Cam: Signs an extension this offseason.

Michaela: He signs an extension, based solely on this quote.

Tyler: Signs extension. There is no way the Nationals will trade the leader of the team and the guy that just won the Home Run Derby on his own field. Sure it is fun to debate but that is the last thing that this clubhouse needs at this moment. 

On Monday night he showed his power and just why he is worth the lucrative extension.

However, trading Harper would be a typical case of #DCSports.

Who leads the Nats in batting average in the second half?

Ryan: Daniel Murphy. If he was never hurt entering the season, he could very well have been the betting favorite to lead the team in average all season long. He’s far enough removed from the Disabled List at this point to feel comfortable taking a shot on his pure hitting talent.

Cam: Anthony Rendon

Michaela: Juan Soto

Tyler: Trea Turner. He is due for a turnaround and none of the pressure is on him. There might also be some extra juice after his All-Star team snubbing. 

Biggest/most important trade deadline acquisition

Ryan: Going to go out on a limb here and say the Nats in a bit of a panic move but one that’s completely defensible, do what it takes to pry JT Realmuto away from the woeful Marlins.

Cam: Another starting pitcher. It's Matt Harvey Time!

Michaela: *fingers crossed* Starting pitching.

Tyler: Manny Machado, Dodgers. This is a no-brainer. Once written off a decimated by injury, the Los Angeles Dodgers are back to being a World Series contender once again. Sitting at the top of the division, with no one in the National League pulling away, Machado will put the Dodgers back as the team to chance.

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Nationals players were critical of Dave Martinez's decision-making in the first half

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Nationals players were critical of Dave Martinez's decision-making in the first half

Baseball fans love the long ball. They love the flashy plays. They love the no-hit bids and the rare perfect game. All of these things dominate headlines and capture our attention. 

The often overlooked bullpen of a club, however, almost always serves as the glue holding everything together. Relief pitching is derived of unsung heroes who are asked to perform on short notice and in sticky, high-pressure situations. 

Head skipper of the Washington Nationals, Dave Martinez, is being criticized for his handling of the bullpen during the first half of the season. 

By now it's well-documented that the Nats played their first 96 games at .500 leaving the club in third place in a division the team has walked all over back-to-back years. 

Sure, one can chalk it up to injuries, lack of roster changes or an inexperienced first-year manager working through kinks. But, there's a reason this team expects to compete for a pennant year in and year out: depth. The buzz around Martinez's decision-making continues to point toward his inability to dish out relief pitching assignments to the player's liking.  

Brandon Kintzler, Ryan Madson, Sean Doolittle, Sammy Solis and Matt Grace once made up the team's relief staff in May. Between disabled-list periods for Kintzler and Madson, and Sammy Solis being sent down to Class AAA Syracuse, the staff took a beating in the month of June. 

Nats relievers aren't necessarily upset about overuse, but more so because of a lack of communication between player and manager. 

At times during the first half of the season, relief pitchers felt overworked and that their wishes were not being acknowledged nor granted by Martinez. 

Sean Doolittle was quick to point out that the addition of Kelvin Herrera, who joined the team on June 18, sparked a change in Martinez's approach. 

“Over the last maybe month or so, maybe since we got Herrera, he’s gone around to the relievers and been a lot more proactive with that communication,” Doolittle said.

On a more tricky note, trust has also been targeted as an area needing improvement. 

When a starter gets in a jam or doesn't seem like he is 100%, Martinez often calls on reinforcements to begin the warming up process. Guys have noticed a pattern in which relief pitchers who initially warm up are often not the ones who start the following inning. 

From a relief pitcher's perspective, this is a sign of Martinez's distrust. Dramatic or not, there was a glaring disconnect throughout the first half of play. 

“With a veteran group, I think we all expect to come into a team and say we’ve all been there; we just want things to go boom, boom, boom and be a piece of cake. But we also all know it’s not like that,” Shawn Kelley said.

Handling his veteran rotation in the second half of the season should become easier for Martinez as Stephen Strasburg is expected to start Friday. The right-hander was placed on the disabled list June 10 with right shoulder inflammation. 

Strasburg pitched 5 2/3 innings in a rehab start for Class A Potomac on Sunday, allowing three runs while striking out seven and walking one. It was his second rehab start since going on the DL. He allowed one run in 3 1/3 innings for Potomac on July 11. Strasburg is 6-6 with a 3.46 ERA this season, striking out 

95 in 80 2/3 innings.

One thing that hasn't been criticized is Martinez's positive attitude. Players often rave about him as a person and how he brings a source of energy in the clubhouse. 

This was on full display during Monday night's Home Run Derby at Nationals Park. 

Moments after Bryce Harper won the Derby, Martinez was among the first to congratulate his All-Star slugger as he hoisted him in the air. 

As the second half of the season gets underway Friday, expect to see a manager who brings forth an openminded approach to his club while in pursuit of a deep October run.