PITTSBURGH — You could hear a pin drop in the visitors clubhouse on Monday night after a road trip, memorable mostly for the inclement weather that affected four of the six games the Nationals played, ended in a rather unremarkable way with the Nationals 11th loss of the season.
For the most part, it was a six-game swing to forget for the Nationals who were hampered by the rain four different times on the trip and were admittedly a little frustrated by the end.
As I wait for my flight from the Pittsburgh airport this morning, here are a few observations from the trip:
– Consistency is the biggest thing missing from the Nationals offense at this point. It seems like they’re taking two steps forward and one step back constantly. They collect 32 hits across three games between last Sunday’s doubleheader and the first game of Wednesday’s, and then they’re held to five total runs and barely double-digits in hits over their next three games combined. They get guys like Michael Morse and Adam LaRoche, pivotal middle-of-the-order bats for the Nationals, to both hit home runs in a 15-hit attack on Sunday, and then they strike out 10 times and allow 15 of the last 17 batters of their game Monday night to go quietly.
Any time you ask a player what he’s working on at the plate, the first word out of his mouth almost always is ‘Consistency.’ Right now, Danny Espinosa (.265) and Wilson Ramos (.341) seem to be the only Nationals regulars who are finding any of it.
– The pitching is, as expected, beginning to crack a little. To say that the Nationals rotation has struggled since being the obvious strength of the team through the season’s first few weeks would be unfair. While it’s tough to put too much stock in the fact that the Nationals are the only team in the major leagues to have every single starter go at least five innings, it’s still a stat that represents a modicum of effectiveness. They’ve certainly been keeping the Nationals in games.
Five innings, though, isn’t exactly deep into a ballgame and the burden of pitching without much run support (the Nationals are averaging just over four runs per game) is a heavy one. Several times this road trip a starting pitcher stood in front of his locker and talked about what a battle the start was for him, regardless of the game’s outcome. John Lannan did it in St. Louis, along with Jordan Zimmermann and Tom Gorzelanny. Jason Marquis did it Sunday in Pittsburgh.
But aside from the five-run deficit the Nationals were in after the first inning of Livan Hernandez’s start on Saturday night, it’d be tough to say that any Nationals starter didn’t give the team a chance to win. Even Hernandez, who had his start delayed an hour and 11 minutes by rain, managed to minimize the damage after the first and last six innings.
Manager Jim Riggleman has made a habit of saying that the Nationals need to be able to overcome nights when the offense doesn’t hit well. He said it again Monday — his point more about playing clean defense than anything — but when those nights are more the norm than the exception, it’s obviously taxing on the pitching staff.
– It’d be tough to count how many times a Nationals player or coach has pointed out that the team, while clearly not hitting well and still making too many mistakes in the field, is still hovering around a .500 record. When it’s said after a loss, often times it’s easy to brush off the statement. But when you actually think about it, it’s incredibly true. Plenty of teams would like to have the Nationals record through 21 games.
The Nationals have an awful lot of potential if they can put things together on a consistent basis but, again, that seems to be their biggest issue.
And while the inconsistency is maddening for them — as I said, two steps forward, one step back — if you think about it over the course of an entire season, if the Nationals were to finish at or around .500 I’d have to imagine more than a few fans would consider the season not only a significant improvement over years past but certainly a step in the right direction.
– This is not meant to be an excuse for the Nationals whatsoever — ultimately both teams are playing in the same conditions — but the weather and the schedule have really ransacked the first eighth of the season for them. There’s nothing they can do about the weather, obviously, but there were more than a few questionable scheduling decisions carried out by the Pirates this past weekend that, to an outside observer, seem to have been made without much consideration for the Nationals.
The fact of the matter is, as the home team, that’s Pittsburgh’s right.
But the game was rained out on an extremely playable night on Friday and as a result the Nationals not only lost their scheduled off day on Monday but the courtesy of a day game on a getaway day when the Pirates decided on a 7 p.m. start time for Monday night. The teams were then delayed through some very, very light rain on Saturday but played through a torrential downpour for the first four innings on Monday night.
Baseball is a game heavily reliant on routine and rhythm. The Nationals haven’t been able to generate much of either the past week or so.