The Washington Nationals were without their best player, third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, for 58 of their first 72 games. Their No. 5 hitter, first baseman Adam LaRoche, played 43 games and batted .172 with a torn shoulder muscle before having season-ending surgery. Their $126 million offseason acquisition, right fielder Jayson Werth, has 16 fewer RBI than their rookie second baseman, Danny Espinosa.
Yet, remarkably, everything is working according to plan.
Coming out of spring training, general manager Mike Rizzo envisioned Washington as a club built on pitching and defense, complemented by aggressive, opportunistic base running. What it lacked in the quick-strike ability fueled by Adam Dunn and Josh Willingham in the past, would be replaced by improved athleticism on the base paths, allowing more runners to score and go from first to third on hits in the gaps.
Add it up and you get a team that has hovered around .500 (35-37), despite being near the bottom of the league in several offensive categories for most of the season.
Having won eight consecutive games before Sunday’s loss against Baltimore, the Nats open a three-game series Tuesday against visiting Seattle, and you wonder how much better their record would be with healthy seasons from Zimmerman and LaRoche and typical numbers from Werth.
“Even before the winning streak, when we were losing, we were playing good baseball,” Rizzo said. “We were playing defense, and the starting pitching was effective and the bullpen was performing very well. We just weren’t getting timely hitting. I always felt we were a hit or two away from breaking games open and going on a run.”
Teams that are a couple of hits away find that their line drives go directly at fielders, or never occur with runners in scoring position. Those are losers’ laments, and the Nats were well-versed in the language after dropping eight of nine games toward the end of May. On June 9, they again tied their season-worst at nine games below .500.
But it didn’t shake Rizzo’s faith that the team could contend for a winning record. And the faith he put in role players such as Jerry Hairston Jr., Laynce Nix and Alex Cora has paid off, too, as injuries forced manager Jim Riggleman to shuffle the lineup.
“They’re the unsung heroes who came into this thing as bench players and utility players but began to play on an everyday basis and kept our heads above water,” Rizzo said.
Losing teams complain about bad breaks. Winning teams ignore them or make their own good breaks. As May began, Michael Morse appeared to be losing his grip on an everyday job in left field. Roger Bernadina appeared to be stuck at Triple-A Syracuse. But then center fielder Rick Ankiel went on the disabled list, followed by LaRoche a couple of weeks later. Bernadina took over in center and Morse did likewise at first.
Now Riggleman would be hard-pressed to remove either from the lineup, especially Morse. Since starting in place of LaRoche on May 22, Morse is batting .355 with 11 homers and 32 RBI. His slugging percentage over that period is .757 with an on-base percentage of .420. After hitting just .211 in April, he has become a candidate for the All-Star Game.
“We had every intention of getting Morse 550-600 plate appearances this year,” Rizzo said. “He’s one of the major reasons we traded Josh Willingham and we had a lot of confidence in him taking over the left field job. Jim [Riggleman] was just trying to handpick a few good assignments for Michael to get him going and get him hot. I think it just coincided with LaRoche going down and him moving to first.”
The Nats needed a lot to go right for 2011 to be a successful season, which for them is .500 or better.
They needed the pitching and defense to be solid if not spectacular. They needed rookies Espinosa and catcher Wilson Ramos to transition smoothly to the big leagues. They needed to manufacture enough runs with an unproven lineup.