The Washington Times - May 20, 2011, 02:00AM

NEW YORK – A few thoughts and opinions as the Nationals head to Baltimore with the hope that they’ll arrive with their offense in tow…

Nationals manager Jim Riggleman is running out of (if he hasn’t already) things to say about his team’s lack of offensive performance. After two straight shutouts and a 19-inning scoreless streak going, the Nationals offense seems to have reached another new low. The complete ineffectiveness of the offense is confounding for all involved, make no mistake about that, and you’d be hard pressed to find anyone questioning the Nationals’ or hitting coach Rick Eckstein’s work ethic. Suffice it to say they’re certainly trying to break out of it – both individually and collectively.

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It’s an understandably frustrating situation for all but there also has to be a reason for the struggle. Many of the Nationals that are scuffling are tested, proven hitters with track records that speak glowingly about their offensive prowess. Something is not working. I won’t pretend to know what it is, but unfortunately that leaves me with little insight to share. Thursday, for the second time this season Eckstein was not made available to reporters, despite formal requests for his comment.

Summing up a lot of the team’s feelings, Matt Stairs had this to offer on the subject: “It’s not like we’re trying to make outs. We’re trying to have good at-bats. I think there’s not one person who isn’t frustrated in here. Everyone’s frustrated.

We know we’re a better-hitting team. We know the way the pitchers have pitched, we could have a lot better record if we basically got our heads out of our (a**es) and swung the bat well. It’s not a secret that we’re frustrated but it’s not like we’re doing something wrong in BP or we’re not working on stuff. We are. We’re in the cage a lot. Maybe we need to take a break and not go in the cage. Maybe show up at 6:00 and play the game.

We’re still working on things, and we’re still doing the proper things to prepare for games. Just right now, our offense sucks. No better word.” 

On the other side of the Nationals offensive issues is their pitching which has been largely superb to this point in the season – and been completely wasted several times.

Thursday was the perfect example. Livan Hernandez went seven innings, allowed one run off seven hits and two walks and struck out seven. He wasn’t masterful or dominant but he kept the Mets from scoring all but one of their 10 baserunners on the day. Nine times out of 10 if a pitchers gives his team seven innings and allows only one run, he’ll come away with a pretty good chance at a win. That’s not been the case for the Nationals much this season.

When the Nationals score at least one run, they’re 20-16 this season. That’s not a huge margin but it’s a four-game swing nonetheless. They’ve yet to win a game by more than four runs, meaning that not only are their pitchers doing well, they’re quite often working in tight games where any error becomes magnified. That was the case Thursday. One bad pitch, the only pitch Hernandez said he left up all day, decided the game. It was a similar story for Tom Gorzelanny Wednesday night.

The situation is frustrating enough for the Nationals hitters but the pitchers, to their credit, have yet to admit frustrations on their part with the lack of run support, if there are any. Hernandez stuck with that tone Thursday: “I don’t get frustrated by nothing. I just do my job and try to continue to pitch like that. We can’t do nothing. I want to pitch good like that because I know that if I pitch good like that we’ll win a lot of games… We’re fighting. Sometimes things don’t happen the way you want but we play hard everyday. It’s tough, trust me. We feel it. We’re human. We want to win. We’ve got a great team and we’re there, close, 20 wins – everybody’s got 20-something wins and we’re right there. We’re going to get hot one day and that’s it.”

By now you know that the Nationals had a few issues with the umpires on Thursday afternoon. Most of those issues were with first base ump Phil Cuzzi. However, it’s worth mentioning that the strike zone from home plate umpire Manny Gonzalez wasn’t exactly “standard” on Thursday either. For example, take a look at the Pitch F/X for Mets starter Dillon Gee, which clearly shows a number of strikes called outside the zone. The Nationals didn’t seem to take too much issue with Gonzalez’s zone and neither did the Mets, however, a cursory glance at the Pitch F/X on Gameday also showed several pitches that were called balls that were clearly within the strike zone.

One sequence that comes to mind particularly is the back-to-back walks issued by Cole Kimball to Daniel Murphy and Justin Turner with two outs in the eighth inning. Looking back at the Pitch F/X on Brooks Baseball, it doesn’t look as egregious as it did on Gameday but it’s clear that there were at least two inside the strike zone and one just below that could have gone either way (No. 6) that was the final pitch in the walk to Turner. 

One of the most animated Nationals following the game today was catcher Ivan Rodriguez. That’s nothing new for Rodriguez, who is always one of the first guys off the bench (when he’s not playing) to get in line to congratulate his teammates after a win. He brings a distinct energy and attitude to the Nationals dugout and more than one player has noted his impact and his outlook as a 39-year-old future Hall of Famer who’s being asked, for the first time in his career, to take a lesser role.

I didn’t know how that conversation was going to go,” admitted Nationals manager Jim Riggleman recently. “But he said, ‘Hey, anything you need, that’s what I’m here for. I’m here to help the team win. However you need to use me, use me and I’ve still got a lot of baseball left.’ That was the perfect response from a true professional and he’s become a real contributor. He plays like a regular still so we try to get as much out of him as we can. Take advantage of what he gives us and at the same time develop (Wilson) Ramos.”

The way Rodriguez has handled that transition – seamlessly and without complaint – was thrown into stark contrast earlier this week when the Yankees and Jorge Posada had a very public blowup over a similar situation. It’s easy to speculate now that if Rodriguez continues to produce as well as he has (14 RBI in 15 hits) he’ll be the target of trade talk come deadline time, but until then the Nationals will certainly continue to enjoy their fortune at catcher.

He’s a No. 1 catcher who’s in a backup role for us here,” Riggleman said.