Na­tional cri­sis?

Na­tion­als off to slug­gish start

USA TODAY Sports Weekly - - News - Danny Kno­bler

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.

GE­OFF BURKE/USA TO­DAY SPORTS

Na­tion­als man­ager Dave Mar­tinez thinks his team will turn it around when in­jured play­ers re­turn.

BRAD MILLS/USA TO­DAY SPORTS

Max Scherzer has been one of the few bright spots for the Na­tion­als, get­ting some big wins.

GE­OFF BURKE/USA TO­DAY SPORTS

Ryan Zim­mer­man hit two home runs April 18, rais­ing hopes that his swing was com­ing back.

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