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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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Nationals-Phillies postponed on Monday night

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Nationals-Phillies postponed on Monday night

WASHINGTON -- Bryce Harper came back to the District on Monday. No baseball was played.

Rain storms cycled through the DMV starting around 6 p.m. at first delaying the series-opening game between the Nationals and Phillies, before it was finally postponed at 10 p.m. The game will be made up as part of a split-doubleheader on Wednesday. The first game is at 1:05 p.m., the second at 7:05 p.m.

The Tuesday starters for both teams remain the same: Patrick Corbin for the Nationals and Jake Arrieta for the Phillies.

Washington will need an extra starter during the week because it is playing seven games in six days. For instance, the Nationals could call someone up to pitch the first game Wednesday, and have Max Scherzer pitch on regular rest Wednesday night. The doubleheader being played Wednesday instead of Tuesday allows the Nationals plenty of time to import a starter for the day, if they choose to do it then.

However, Tuesday’s forecast is also rain-filled. Stay tuned.

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Nationals introduce first round pick Jackson Rutledge, who is ready to work

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Nationals introduce first round pick Jackson Rutledge, who is ready to work

WASHINGTON -- Jackson Rutledge may still be years away from the majors, but as the Nationals' 2019 first round pick toured the team's ballpark for the first time on Monday, he sure looked the part as a big leaguer.

At 6-foot-8, Rutledge towers over everyone currently on the Nationals' roster. He's got prototypical pitcher size with a fastball that reaches triple digits.

Like any pitcher recently drafted, no matter the round, there is a good chance Nationals fans will not hear Rutledge's name again for quite some time, if they hear it again at all.

In the previous eight years, the team used their first pick in the draft on a pitcher six times. Only two of them - Lucas Giolito and Erick Fedde - have pitched in a Nationals uniform, and only Fedde is currently on their roster.

Rutledge, 20, will begin his journey with the Gulf Coast League Nationals. He heads there on Friday, hoping it will not be long before he is back in Washington.

"This is my first time in D.C.," Rutledge said. "Amazing stadium."

Rutledge signed his first contract with the Nationals on Monday and passed a physical in the morning. In the afternoon, he walked around the clubhouse and on the field during batting practice, introducing himself to manager Davey Martinez and players who could be his future teammates.

Rutledge has said in various interviews since being drafted earlier this month that he looks forward to playing with Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin, the Nationals' three ace starters. 

This was his first glimpse at them in-person.

"Meeting all the big league guys was really cool," he said. "I just want to be one of those guys that has that success."

If there was any impression Rutledge left on Monday, beyond his height, it was his eagerness to learn. He cited several of his mentors over the years, former big leaguers like Andy Benes who coached him in summer ball and Woody Williams, an assistant coach at San Jacinto Community College. He mentioned Tom Arrington, head coach at San Jacinto, and his attention to detail.

Rutledge even had praise for Ross Detwiler, a former Nationals pitcher whom they took in the first round of the 2007 MLB Draft. He explained how Detwiler taught him a changeup grip during an offseason workout that he has continued to use.

Those are the people, he says, who helped him arrive at this unexpected place in his life as a first-round draft pick.

"If you asked me a year and a half ago where I would be, I probably wouldn't say the first round. It worked out really well because of how hard I worked," Rutledge said.

His college numbers were certainly impressive. Rutledge held a 0.87 ERA with 134 strikeouts in 13 starts. As a freshman at Arkansas before transferring, he posted a 3.45 ERA in 12 starts.

Rutledge is now looking forward to taking the next steps in his development. He said working on his curveball and changeup will be the focus while he's in the GCL. He wants to add weight and muscle to prepare for next year, his first full pro season. 

Assuming he does someday return to Washington as a big league pitcher, Rutledge said to expect a guy who likes to work fast but without a lot of emotion.

"When things are going well, I really feel in control of the game. I feel like I'm setting the game at my own pace and hitters feel uncomfortable because of that," he said. 

"I'm not a guy that's going to get up and start yelling and give energy like that, I'm more of a consistent kind of flat body language sort of guy."

Nationals fans will hope to get to know him better someday. For now, it's down to the minors to learn the ropes as a prospect.

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