- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Inside a dead-quiet clubhouse at Chase Field on Sunday afternoon, as the Washington Nationals showered and packed their bags following the latest in a growing line of meager offensive performances, hitting coach Lenny Harris tried to describe what his players were going through.

“It just seems like one guy is waiting for the next guy to do it,” Harris said. “That’s the way the game looks like it’s being played.”

The worst-hitting team in the major leagues sorely needs somebody to step up and take charge. But with more than half of the Opening Night lineup injured and the remaining healthy bodies unable to pick up the slack, the likelihood of such a turnaround seems grim.

The Nationals simply can’t hit right now, not as a team and not as individuals. After back-to-back shutout losses in Arizona over the weekend, the club’s batting average fell to .231 (lowest in the big leagues). Washington’s 217 runs scored rank 28th out of 30 teams, its .308 on-base percentage is tied with the San Diego Padres for last place and its .349 slugging percentage ranks 30th by a considerable margin.

The only position players hitting above .273 are catchers Jesus Flores (.338) and Wil Nieves (.298) and shortstop Cristian Guzman (.300). Six members of the current roster are hitting below .220: first baseman Dmitri Young (.216) and outfielders Wily Mo Pena (.209), Willie Harris (.162), Ryan Langerhans (.154), Elijah Dukes (.148) and Rob Mackowiak (.135).

Only one player is on pace for more than 15 homers or 60 RBI: third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, who hasn’t played in a week and yesterday learned he has a small tear in his left shoulder.

Manager Manny Acta doesn’t exactly have a barrel full of viable alternatives to try to break his club out of its season-long funk.

“There’s only so much you can do,” he said. “You play them, and that’s how you find out who’s got the character and the makeup to go through tough times and be able to play here and help us in the future.”

Acta has been careful not to use the Nationals’ lengthy disabled list as a crutch for his team’s struggles. There is no denying, however, that Washington would benefit from having at least a couple of those injured players back in the lineup.

Of the eight position players who started on Opening Night more than two months ago, only three remain healthy: Milledge, Dukes and Guzman. Four are on the DL (first baseman Nick Johnson, catcher Paul Lo Duca, second baseman Ronnie Belliard and right fielder Austin Kearns), and a fifth (Zimmerman) appears headed there.

“Well, obviously not having Nick and not having Zimmerman and Kearns and Lo Duca, those were part of the guys we were counting on in our lineup,” Acta said. “But we’re throwing out big league hitters and especially young guys that we were counting on because of their potential.”

Ah, potential. Countless Washington players have it. Few have realized it, another major reason for this team’s overall struggles.

The Nationals expected young players like Milledge, Dukes and Pena to experience some ups and downs as they developed at the big league level. But the ups have been few and far between this season, and the lows keep getting lower.

“We’ve got some young guys that are learning on the fly without a track record,” veteran infielder Aaron Boone said. “And sometimes there’s some pains with that.”

Pains or not, there’s no intention to give up on those struggling players from a Washington club that remains committed to development.

“A lot of these guys, they have the potential,” Acta said. “That’s what we’re dealing with. Potential means you haven’t done nothing in this game. That you might do it. We’re giving them a chance. We’ll continue to work. As long as they don’t give up on themselves, we’ll continue to give them a shot. Because these are the guys we’re counting on. This is our team.”

NEW SERIES

ST. LOUIS CARDINALS AT WASHINGTON NATIONALS

Where: Nationals Park

Today: 7:10 p.m., RHP Kyle Lohse (5-2, 4.02) vs. LHP Odalis Perez (2-4, 4.14), MASN-HD.

Tomorrow: 7:10 p.m., RHP Todd Wellemyer (6-1, 3.16) vs. LHP John Lannan (4-5, 3.52), MASN-HD.

Thursday: 7:10 p.m., RHP Mike Parisi (0-2, 6.38) vs. RHP Tim Redding (6-3, 3.71), MASN-HD.

Series breakdown: A Cardinals squad that was supposed to be stuck in rebuilding mode this season has instead turned into one of baseball’s biggest surprises, owners of the NL’s second-best record behind the division rival Cubs. The key to St. Louis’ success: big-time performances from some starting pitchers who weren’t expected to come through like this. Adam Wainwright is 5-2 with a 2.86 ERA, Wellemyer didn’t allow more than three runs in any of his six May starts and Lohse proved to be an important late-spring signing. The big surprise at the plate has been 29-year-old outfielder Ryan Ludwick, who is playing full-time for the first time and is hitting .321 with 13 homers and a stout slugging percentage above .650.

-Mark Zuckerman

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