Reporting David Elfin
The Washington Nationals would just as soon forget the first 59 percent of their season, the portion that ended with this past Sunday’s victory in Miami that raised their record to 48-47. Washington is basically where it was two years ago when it reached the All-Star break at 46-46.
Of course, those 2011 Nats were a ballclub coming off three straight seasons and five out of six in last place. In contrast, the 2013 Nats were favored to win the World Series after finishing atop the National League East last year with a major league-high 98 victories.
After such a dispiriting first 95 games, Washington will have to go an unfathomable 50-17 the rest of the way to match last year’s record. More important are these numbers: the Nats trail the front-running Atlanta Braves by six games in the division race and the Cincinnati Reds by five in the battle for the second and final wild card berth.
Washington has plummeted from spring training World Series favorites to also-rans at the All-Star break because of its punchless performance at the plate and shoddy play in the field.
However, the frustrations of the season’s first 95 games was summarized in two innings by their star pitchers last weekend.
On Friday night, preseason Sports Illustrated cover boy Stephen Strasburg melted down against cellar-dwelling Miami, allowed three hits and walking three batters while giving up a career-high five runs in the first inning of an 8-3 loss.
The next night, after free agent bust Dan Haren and set-up men Drew Storen and Tyler Clippard held the Marlins scoreless on three hits through eight innings, star closer Rafael Soriano was tagged for a game-tying homer by Giancarlo Stanton in the ninth before pinch hitter turned third baseman Chad Tracy’s error in the 10th put Miami in position to win 2-1.
When your presumed ace and your primo reliever combine to surrender six runs to the lowly Marlins in two innings when you really need to gain ground in the National League East race, you’re in serious trouble. The consecutive defeats made it five out of six for Washington against division lesser lights Philadelphia and Miami.
Instead of gaining on the Braves since hitting midseason at 41-40 after a 7-4 finishing kick to the first half, the Nats went 7-7 during the past 14 games against the likes of the Marlins, Phillies, San Diego Padres and Milwaukee Brewers to remain mired in mediocrity.
It’s not hard to understand why Washington has plunged from the top of the National League in 2012 to sixth in 2013, a half game ahead of Philadelphia as well as the Los Angeles Dodgers, who visit Nats Park when the season resumes on Friday.
A year after finishing fourth in batting average and fifth in runs in the NL, the Nats have slid to 13th in both categories. Washington’s batters are hitting a full 20 points lower this season, .241 compared to .261.
The Nats’ fielding has sunk from second to 12th in the league, but that’s only a difference of .985 to .981.
Washington’s pitching, which led the NL (and the majors) with a 3.33 earned run average in 2012, is fifth-ranked now at 3.58.
Manager Davey Johnson’s team could still be playoff-bound despite such fielding thanks to such solid pitching, but the latter hasn’t been enough to overcome such pathetic hitting.
While right fielder Jayson Werth is hitting .297, just below his .300 average of 2012, and left fielder Bryce Harper is also not far off at .264 compared to last year’s .270 average, the rest of the lineup hasn’t measured up to 2012’s performances.
Catcher Kurt Suzuki – likely to be the recently re-activated Wilson Ramos’ backup the rest of the way – has dropped from .267 to .219. First baseman Adam LaRoche (.271 to .249), shortstop Ian Desmond (.292 to .281) and third baseman Ryan Zimmerman (.282 to .270) have also slipped. Denard Span, who took the traded Michael Morse’s spot in the outfield, is hitting .260 compared to his predecessor’s .291. Second baseman Danny Espinosa had plunged from .247 to .158 before getting replaced by rookie Anthony Rendon on June 5.
Ramos, who’s hitting .300 in 80 at-bats, and Rendon, .301 in 163, have helped, but the Nats have still found ways to lose despite the addition of their potent bats as evident in the 2-5 record during the final week before the All-Star break against the Phillies and Marlins.
Atlanta has barely played .500 ball (42-40) since its blistering 12-1 start, but Washington still actually lost ground, going 40-42.
There’s no doubt that a team with Strasburg (5-7, 2.99), Gio Gonzalez (7-3, 3.03) and Jordan Zimmermann (12-4, 2.58), and at the top of its rotation and Clippard (6-1, 1.99) and Soriano (25 saves, 2.25) finishing games should be able to compete with the game’s best.
All five of those pitchers have been All-Stars. But only Werth and Desmond are hitting better than their career averages. Unless the rest of the lineup starts producing, especially in the clutch, and the entire team starts playing smarter in the field, it’s hard to see the Nats not winding up as busts instead of in the World Series come October.
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last three Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March 2011. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin