Nationals off to sluggish start
Despite a slow start in a division they were favored to dominate, Washington fans shouldn’t have reason to panic ... yet.
When you win 95-plus games four times in six years, as the Washington Nationals have, you build expectations. When you build a roster like the one the Nationals have now, no one ever thinks you should lose.
But baseball teams lose. They lose nine of 16, as the Nationals did to begin this season.
“We went 7-9 two different times last season,” Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo reminds you.
They did, but it was in the middle of a season in which they won 97 games and finished 201⁄ games in front in the Na2 tional League East. This time, it happened at the start, and even though it came at a time the Nats were playing without several starters, plenty of people wondered why the team wasn’t playing better.
“We weren’t panicking, but I think the rest of the world was panicking a bit,” Rizzo said.
The Nationals know Adam Eaton and Anthony Rendon will get healthy and that Daniel Murphy will eventually rejoin the lineup, too. They knew Ryan Zimmerman wouldn’t hit .103 all year, as he did in his first 13 games. They believed the bullpen would look more like it did after last season’s second-half makeover and less like those same pitchers did at the beginning of 2018.
More than that, they just knew that as a team, they could and would play better than they have so far.
“Our confidence never changed,” pitcher Max Scherzer says. “We knew if we play our B game, we can get beat by any team playing its A game. But we feel like if we play our A game, we can beat any team in base- ball. And we’ve shown it. But too many times so far we’ve played our B game.”
That’s not really true for Scherzer himself. The threetime Cy Young winner has been doing his usual thing, with a 1.36 ERA through five starts, with three double-figure strikeout games, a two-hit shutout against the Atlanta Braves and an April 20 win in a Cy Young matchup with the Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw in Los Angeles.
But Scherzer also lost a game in which he gave up three unearned runs. Three weeks into the season, the San Diego Padres were the only NL team that had allowed more unearned runs than the Nationals.
The sometimes sloppy play had to be the biggest disappointment for new Nationals manager Dave Martinez, whose team was 10-12 after losing two of three to the Dodgers in Los Angeles last weekend.
“His number one rule from Day 1 was don’t give them more than 27 outs,” shortstop Trea Turner told The Washington Post.
Harper carrying load
Martinez constantly likes to talk about doing the “little things,” both in the field and at the plate. But the Nationals are also a big-thing-type of team, with Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg dominating on the mound and hitters such as Bryce Harper pounding the ball.
Harper is off to a particularly strong start, with eight home runs in his first 22 games. But he has also led the league in walks, a reminder of how the Nationals miss Murphy as another dangerous hitter in the middle of the lineup.
“(Murphy) is really good, so of course it will be a huge impact,” said Martinez, thinking ahead to when Murphy returns.
Murphy had microfracture surgery on his right knee in October, and he only recently was able to go to Florida to take part in extended spring training games. The Nationals don’t believe in publicly setting timetables for injured players, but they have said they don’t want to rush Murphy back.
Murphy’s absence hurt even more when Rendon missed a week and headed to the 10-day DL on April 22 after he fouled a ball off his left big toe. It didn’t help that Zimmerman, who normally hits behind Harper in the cleanup spot, got off to such a bad start. Zimmerman hit two home runs April 18 against the division-leading Mets at Citi Field, raising hopes that his swing might be coming back.
Eaton was acquired last year to be the Nationals leadoff hitter, but he has spent much of his time in Washington on the disabled list. He missed most of last season with an anterior cru-
ciate ligament tear, then went on the DL on April 8 this year with a bone bruise in his left ankle.
“I think we’ve just got to stay afloat until we get those guys back,” Harper says. “Eaton is one of the best table-setters around, Rendon is one of the most underrated players in the game and Murphy, he has great at-bats.”
With all of them out, the Nationals have only been in the middle of the pack in runs, averaging just under 4.3 runs per game through the first three weeks of the season. That’s a big difference from last year, when they averaged more than five runs per game.
The bigger surprise has been the bullpen, which had combined for a 5.78 ERA (worst in the National League) entering the week. The bullpen was also an issue for the Nationals at this time last season, but that was before the midseason trades for Sean Doolittle, Ryan Madson and Brandon Kintzler.
All three of those guys are still around, but while Doolittle had converted all four of his save opportunities and had a 2.70 ERA, Madson and Kintzler combined to allow 15 earned runs in 211⁄ innings. 3
Still, the feeling so far isn’t like it was last year, when it was a given the Nationals would need to trade for relief help. There isn’t that sense now, not about the bullpen or about anything else with this team.
“We have the mentality we’re one of the best teams in baseball,” Harper said.
Their April record hasn’t said that, but the names on the roster still suggest it. The early injuries have kept some of those names out of the lineup, but that should change shortly.
None of what has happened in April suggests experts misjudged the Nats or that they misjudged themselves. Nothing suggests a reason for panic.
For now, it’s just a slow start.
Nationals manager Dave Martinez thinks his team will turn it around when injured players return.
Max Scherzer has been one of the few bright spots for the Nationals, getting some big wins.
Ryan Zimmerman hit two home runs April 18, raising hopes that his swing was coming back.