Jun 9, 2015, 9:30 AM EST
There was the 7-13 start to the season, which left more than a few observers concerned. Then there was the 21-6 stretch that included nine consecutive series won, leaving more than a few observers raving about the Nationals.
Now, though, there is a 2-8 slump, one that has dropped the Nats out of first place in the NL East and left more than a few observers wondering … well, wondering what exactly is going on here.
If you’re having trouble answering that question, you’re not alone. It extends into the clubhouse.
“I don’t know, man,” center fielder Denard Span said following Sunday’s 6-3 loss to the Cubs. “We’ve been streaky. Obviously this year, we’re just going through a rough patch. Can’t get anything going offensively. A lot of it is, I think, we’re banged up as well. We’ve got a lot of guys giving it their all. We’ve just got to try to weather the storm, really, stay in the thick of things until everybody gets full strength, I guess.”
There indeed have been a string of injuries that have contributed to the current slide. The Nationals’ rotation has been in a state of flux for the last two weeks, with Doug Fister and Stephen Strasburg landing on the disabled list and a bunch of young pitchers thrown into the fire to fill the void (most notably Taylor Jordan and then Joe Ross).
That situation is beginning to stabilize. Fister made a rehab start for Class AAA Syracuse on Sunday, and while he’ll almost certainly need to make another one later this week, the right-hander could wel be ready to return from a forearm strain after that. Strasburg, meanwhile, has thrown off a bullpen mound with no discomfort in his neck or upper back and appears close to ready for his own rehab assignment.
Offensively, the Nationals have yet to field their entire projected lineup this season, with Span and Anthony Rendon each out to begin the year and Jayson Werth already having made two stints on the DL. Werth’s latest injury (a fractured left wrist) is expected to keep him out until August, so the Nats still won’t debut their full 1-through-8 until late-summer.
Which doesn’t mean the current group can’t be productive. We’ve already seen it this season, with a lineup minus Rendon having averaged 5.6 runs per game during that 21-6 stretch. In 10 games since, the Nationals have averaged 2.7 runs per game, with a paltry .298 on-base percentage.
“We can go back to last year … there are no excuses to be made, but April wasn’t kind to us in regard to injury,” manager Matt Williams said. “It was a little bit of a struggle early on. When we got everybody back, it started to roll for us pretty good. That being said, there are no excuses, period. We’ve got to play and win games and get to where we want to get to.”
Most striking right now is the lack of production from three trusted, middle-of-the-order hitters: Ryan Zimmerman, Ian Desmond and Wilson Ramos.
Zimmerman is hitting just .213 with a .270 on-base percentage and .622 OPS, all nowhere close to his career norms. The veteran infielder has never posted an OPS+ under 103, and hasn’t seen that number fall below 118 in the last six seasons. Right now, his OPS+ is a paltry 69.
Desmond, meanwhile, has yet to find his groove in a contract year coming off three consecutive Silver Slugger campaigns. He did enjoy a 13-game hitting streak at one point, but is only 5 for his last 35 and carries a .242 batting average and .670 OPS into tonight’s series opener against the Yankees.
Ramos, likewise, enjoyed a nice run, with a career-best 19-game hitting streak earlier in the season. But the 27-year-old catcher, despite staying healthy and currently on pace to be behind the plate 128 times this year, has yet to find his power stroke and has seen his OPS fall to .665.
Perhaps the tide will begin to turn again. This week, the Nationals play twice at hitter-friendly Yankee Stadium, then play four games against a Brewers club that has been dreadful. The weather is warming up, and this team has been known in recent years to start finding its stroke as summer arrives.
Above all else, the Nats seek one key trait right now, the kind of trait that usually defines the best ballclubs.
“Consistency,” Desmond said. “We’ve just gotta get consistent. We score runs one day and don’t score runs one day. We pitch well, then don’t. We play good defense and then don’t. Just going back and forth right now and having trouble finding that rhythm. This is a good ballclub. Not to say that these games are do-or-die, but we’ve got to start playing a little better. Definitely got to start swinging the bats, me included, if not at the top of that list.”
FINAL NL EAST STANDINGS
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As ESPN-980 AM's Nats Insider, Mark makes daily appearances on the station's various shows. Here's the 2015 schedule (subject to change)...
MON: 12:45 p.m.
TUE: 2:30 p.m.
WED: 4:30 p.m.
THU: 2:30 p.m.
FRI: 5:30 p.m.
SAT: 10:30 a.m.
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