Exactly one-third of the way into the 2013 season, the Nationals are 27-27. They trail the Atlanta Braves by 5 1/2 games in the division, which is certainly not much at this point in the season. However, coming off a disappointing series loss to the Orioles, the Nationals are in dire need of wins. As Ian Desmond said, “No more complacency. It’s time to turn it on… We’re capable of playing better and it’s time to go.”
The team’s main problem has been offense. They are 26th in baseball in runs scored, and some of the blame falls on injuries. Both Jayson Werth and Bryce Harper have missed significant time, and the team has scuffled without them. Even so, the rest of the lineup is failing to pull its weight either. Only Harper and Ryan Zimmerman have OPSs above .800, though Adam LaRoche has been hitting much better since breaking his cold streak with a 1.050 OPS in May. Desmond and Denard Span have OPSs below .700 in May, and the bench players pressed into action have not delivered.
Roger Bernadina, Tyler Moore, and Chad Tracy are all batting under .200 while Moore and Bernadina have become semi-regulars with outfield injuries. Steve Lombardozzi has a .561 OPS and -0.4 oWAR in 111 plate appearances, but is the lesser of two evils at second base as Danny Espinosa has a .477 OPS and -0.8 oWAR in 148 plate appearances. All of these players are better than their numbers show, but they need to break out of their prolonged slumps soon for the team to succeed.
The offense is a concern, but it improved with time last season. When the entire team is healthy, the production should improve even if there is none from second base. It should improve this season as well, but if it doesn’t soon, the Nationals will have an even deeper hole to dig themselves out of.
The pitching has been good, but not good enough to compensate for the offense. Stephen Strasburg has been excellent of late, now with a 2.49 ERA, and his meltdown against the Cubs appears to have been a turning point for him. Jordan Zimmermann has a 2.37 ERA and is emerging as a Cy Young candidate with three complete games already. Gio Gonzalez and Dan Haren have been inconsistent, but are improving as the season goes along, lowering their ERAs with most starts. Ross Detwiler was also excellent with a 2.76 ERA before suffering an oblique injury that has cost him more than two weeks. With pitching as it is with hitting, the team will improve even further with health and time.
However, the key is for that change to come sooner rather than later. If the Nats are swept in Atlanta, they will trail by 8.5 games and be in serious trouble. Given how early it is in the season, they don’t need a sweep, but a series win would be big for the team mentally. The team must be able to rely on Strasburg and Gonzalez in the first two games, though expectations should be low for Nathan Karns in the series finale. This weekend’s series is important, not only in the standings, but also in the confidence and optimism of the Nats. If the Nats can really contend for a World Series and dismiss their struggles thus far as bad luck, they need to show it to themselves and everyone in Atlanta.