The Washington Times - April 27, 2012, 04:12PM

SAN DIEGO — The Nationals boarded a few buses late Thursday night to make the two-hour drive north to Los Angeles. There, the team with the second-best record in the National League was waiting — a thought that, coming off a loss, in past years might have been incredibly daunting. But the team with the best record in the NL was the one traversing Southern Californian highways around midnight, so even after a tough 2-1 loss, as Edwin Jackson put it there was “nothing to hold our heads down about.”

The series with the Dodgers this weekend should be an interesting one. First things first, the Nationals need to figure out what they’re going to do with Ryan Zimmerman (DL or no DL) and they should have more clarity on that later this afternoon. 


First, a few thoughts, observations and leftovers after the Nationals’ sixth series win in six tries…

– As Jayson Werth rounded third base on his solo home run into the seats Thursday night, he violently slapped hands with third base coach Bo Porter. With the previous two games in mind, it seemed Werth was letting out a little anger or frustration at Petco Park itself. In the three days the Nationals played there Werth squared up the ball perhaps better than anyone and had little to show for it.  

“That was probably part of it,” Werth said later, asked about the aggressive gesture. “Probably more to it than that, but definitely over the course of the season so far there’s been some balls that I’ve hit that didn’t go anywhere, or the result wasn’t what I thought.”

It was an interesting take if you’re only looking at Werth’s numbers, because they’re not bad: .290 average, .395 on-base percentage and .464 slugging percentage.

The questions posed to manager Davey Johnson this year about Werth have been few. He’s hardly come up in pre-game sessions mostly because it was more remarkable when he was failing to produce at the level the Nationals were hoping than it is when he does. The contrast in his first year to his second in Washington, to this point in the season, is startling.

At this time last year, Werth was hitting .200. His on-base-percentage was .286 and his slugging as .373. He was getting most of his work in the No. 2 and No. 3 spots in the lineup with little support around him on a young team and a lineup decimated by the slow start of Michael Morse and the loss of Ryan Zimmerman to an abdominal tear.

Fourth or fifth in the Nationals’ lineup this year is where he’s hit. Fourth against left-handers with Adam LaRoche sliding down to No. 5. And when Morse, who this year is out until at least June with a torn right lat muscle, does return, Werth may slot down into the No. 6 hole. Either way, all three of those are different than where he spent the majority of the 2011 season (which was mostly all over the place, anywhere from leadoff to the bottom third in the order). 

“I think I’ve been swinging the bat well all year,” Werth said. “The numbers look OK. I think they’d probably look a lot better if a couple balls do something different, but I feel good up there. I’ve felt good all year. I just feel like I don’t have a whole lot to show for it.”

If that’s true, if the numbers don’t belie how well Werth feels like he could do (or is doing) this season, it’ll be music to Nationals’ fans ears. Morse’s absence has already been difficult for the lineup to digest and Zimmerman’s return date at this point is unknown as well. Werth and LaRoche will be counted on to make this vacancies appear less drastic.

“Basically,” Johnson said before Thursday’s game, “as he goes and LaRoche goes is how we’re going to go.”

– Speaking of LaRoche, it was somewhere around the fifth inning Thursday night when I wondered just how many steaks the Nationals’ infielders have bought him this season. The infield defense this year has been exceptional — a somewhat overlooked but significant part of why the pitching staff has been as good as it has — and while the credit for that goes to all of them, there’s hardly a night that goes by that LaRoche doesn’t save an error or two, or even a run or two, with his ability at first base.

That thought came to me after watching LaRoche stretch to field a throw from third baseman Chad Tracy and quickly re-tapping his foot on the bag to get Will Venable. 

But it was a play he made later that was more of the highlight-reel variety, especially given the game situation. With a runner on third base via a two-out triple by Orlando Hudson, Cameron Maybin hit a grounder to the right side. Edwin Jackson and LaRoche converged on it but Jackson kept moving and LaRoche, knowing an out would get them out of the inning and anything else would leave them down 1-0, fielded the ball and flipped it flawlessly out of his glove to Jackson at first. 

“That’s just one of those do-or-die’s right there,” LaRoche said. “You hope that it’ll come out clean enough in the glove and you can make a good toss while you try to lead him at the same time.”

“It’s pretty much no communication,” Jackson said, the play one they work on in spring training. “If I can’t get to it, I’m running straight toward the base and banking he’s behind me to make the play.”

That assumption gets a little easier when it’s LaRoche playing behind him. “One of the smoothest defensive players that I know,” Jackson called him. LaRoche noted that the athleticism of the pitcher in that situation is important, too, and something he takes into consideration when attempting the play. It was actually quite similar to the play on which Chien-Ming Wang strained his left hamstring in spring training.

– The only two relievers who weren’t used in the Padres’ series were Ryan Mattheus and Brad Lidge. (UPDATE) Lidge was placed on the disabled list Friday (retroactive to April 22) with an abdominal wall strain)

There’s nothing wrong with Mattheus, Johnson said, the game situations just didn’t line up for him to use him in San Diego. Johnson was asked about Mattheus after Thursday’s game when the Nationals opted to ask Clippard for four outs but he said Mattheus was completely healthy. 

Clippard wound up giving up the decisive blow in their 2-1 loss but Johnson defended his choice: Clippard is the man he wants out there with the game on the line, so he didn’t doubt that the All-Star set-up man would get out of any jam (created by him or anyone else).