Thursday was (unofficially) Cover Your Eyes Day at Nationals Park. A five-star pitching matchup between Gio Gonzalez and the New York Mets' R.A. Dickey quickly disintegrated into Gonzalez's worst outing of the season and a 9-5 Washington loss. Afterward, Davey Johnson had to call on all his resourcefulness to come up with a some positives, just so everybody wouldn't think it was "a complete bad day."
There are any number of ways you can look at this. You can say, "The Nats still took two out of three in the series, so what's the big deal?" You can take comfort in the fact that they lumped nine mostly lousy innings, including three Mets homers, into a single day (rather than spread them out over an entire week, which might have cost them more games). You also can argue, as I'm about to, that we couldn't possibly expect Johnson's staff to pitch lights-out for 162 games, that the pendulum was bound to swing back at some point.
Folks, we seem to be at that point.
Not that this is any great cause for alarm. It's late July. It's been beastly hot. We're 90 games into the season. Lulls like this tend to occur in the Dog Days, as they're called. And make no mistake, the Nationals' pitchers have definitely hit a lull. Not quite a month ago, you may recall, they had four starters with earned-run averages under 3.00 and a closer who was 12 for 12 in save situations (en route to being 14 for 14).
But Edwin Jackson's ERA has jumped from 2.91 to 3.89 (more in line with his 3.79 mark last year), Gonzalez's has risen from 2.55 to 3.32 (similar to his efforts the past two seasons) and Clippard has had hiccups in three of his past five outings (because, well, nobody's perfect). Overall, the Nats' team ERA has crept up to 3.22 — still tops in the majors, but not as jaw-dropping as before.
"You've just gotta learn how to grind through it and try to fight through it," Gio said after getting just 10 outs and giving up six Mets runs. "You're not going have great games all the time. You've gotta go out there and continue to fight and at least give your team a chance to win. It was just one of those days that I had today."
What should help the Nationals get through this stretch, however long it lasts, is that some of their best bats have returned to the lineup. Ryan Zimmerman, after missing 13 games and struggling to regain his stroke, got a cortisone shot and has been hitting like Roy Hobbs ever since (.365 batting average, 8 home runs, .753 slugging). Michael Morse, too, is back, and Jayson Werth, who has been out almost as long as Bryce Harper has been with the club, is about to begin his rehab assignment.
It's these guys, and a few others (e.g. Harper, Ian Desmond, Danny Espinosa and Adam LaRoche), who may have to carry the load for a while — the way the pitchers did in the first half of the season. It certainly doesn't seem like too much to ask. Indeed, Morse's and Espinosa's bats already have begun to stir, adding to the production Harper, Desmond and LaRoche have taken turns providing.
Let's face it, when it's finally whole — that is, when Werth reclaims his outfield spot and everybody is contributing the way they can — this Nats offense has the potential to do some damage. As LaRoche put it, "I think we're capable of a lot of things [offensively]. We've shown flashes of it. But I don't think we've had the whole team out there one time all year. Up to now pitching, defense and base running have carried us. I'll be interested to see what happens, though, when we get Jayson back in there and [Chad] Tracy [their best pinch-hitter, who's been on the disabled list for 44 games following surgery for a torn groin muscle]."
We saw one of those offensive "flashes" in the opener against the Mets, when the Nationals rallied in the ninth and again in the 10th to pull out a 4-3 victory. They didn't have that kind of come-from-behind ability earlier in the season, when they were missing so many bodies. We even saw it in the late going Thursday, after the Mets had taken a 9-1 lead and Johnson opted to pull some of his starters. The Nats narrowed the gap to 9-5 — and left the bases loaded in the eighth (when Harper flied to left).
"We were never out of the game," Desmond said, "and that's a great sign."
In the Nats' rise to the top of the National League — and a 3 1/2-game lead in the division — the pitching staff has made the most of a modest amount of offensive support. But now it might need a little more assistance, a bit more margin for error, if the club wants to keep a firm grip on a playoff berth.
Or to put it another way: Hitters, it's your turn.
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