- The Washington Times - Monday, April 27, 2009

NEW YORK

The biggest difference between the Washington Nationals being in the middle of the NL East and being where they are is not because of scandals involving Dominican teenagers or spats involving Little League appearances.

It’s also not because of the tone manager Manny Acta is or isn’t setting for his players. Quite simply and concretely, it’s because the Nationals have been in multiple situations where they could have taken a lead or broken a game open and missed their chance.

Whatever issues the Nationals have had during a 4-13 start following a tumultuous spring, the one that has come up over and over again is their poor situational hitting - their inability to build at-bats with men on base that either move runners over or drive them in.

For an offense already generating more production in almost every major area than last year’s limp attack, situational hitting continues to be the biggest reason the Nationals struggle to win games.

Through Saturday’s games, they were tied for sixth in the National League in hits, fifth in batting average and fourth in on-base percentage. Even the most sophisticated stats show the Nationals’ offense should have salted away more games than it has.

Their Pythagorean expectation, which uses run differential in a formula to calculate a team’s expected win-loss record, says the Nationals should have been 6-10 through Saturday.

Runs created a game, a stat that weighs the collective offensive contributions of a player to measure how many runs that player would generate given 27 outs, has the Nationals averaging 5.2 runs a game this year. That’s about the same output the 2008 Phillies generated on their run to capturing the World Series.

Those types of stats don’t take into account runs or RBI. That means they don’t entirely quantify the most basic act of scoring a run, the one the Nationals have been failing at all season - coming to the plate with a man in scoring position in a key situation and delivering.

They finally broke through with some clutch hitting in Sunday’s 8-1 win over the Mets, going 5-for-12 with runners in scoring position and driving in four runs with two outs.

But even with that, Washington was hitting just .242 with runners in scoring position. In 27 at-bats with the bases loaded, the team was hitting .148 and had driven in just nine runs.

Then there are the situations like the one in the sixth inning Friday night. With the Nationals trailing 2-1 and runners on first and second with no outs, Elijah Dukes and Austin Kearns both struck out against Johan Santana. That left the runners exactly where they were and eliminated any opportunity for Jesus Flores to make a productive out and move them into better position.

“The team has done a great job getting in scoring situations,” hitting coach Rick Eckstein said. “We haven’t done a very good job knocking those runners in. In those situations, there’s several things that you can look at. One is getting a good pitch to hit, not expanding [the zone] or trying to do too much.

Eckstein has a hitting theory he calls “the 80 percent rule,” one he suggests might partially explain why the Nationals aren’t coming through.

Basically, the idea is that a hitter swinging 80 percent as hard as he can will be able to hit any ball hard enough to generate offense, without being susceptible to the same kinds of problems that come with overswinging.

“You don’t have to swing the bat at 100 percent max effort to get the ball to do what you want to do,” Eckstein said. “Sometimes when you try to swing max effort, you try to hit the ball too far out front, you see it and you go for it. You get a little ahead of yourself.”

Acta, though, doesn’t buy pressure as an excuse.

“That’s a personal issue,” Acta said. “I’ve always said, in my three years that I’ve been here, that you shouldn’t put pressure on yourself playing for this ballclub because we’re not even expected to win. The only people that expect us to win is ourselves. We’re playing in half-empty stadiums, except when you come over here [to New York]. I think everybody just needs to be themselves and do what they can do.”

The lack of clutch hitting hasn’t been the Nationals’ only problem. But if it went away, you probably would hear a lot less about the other ones.

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