- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 3, 2012

Ryan Zimmerman stood in the back of the Washington Nationals’ clubhouse, lights from television cameras reflecting off the sweat streaked down his face, and spoke in a low voice.

“I’ve been terrible,” Zimmerman said.

Sure, the Nationals remain in first place in the National League East after Sunday’s 3-2 loss to the Atlanta Braves. But the 2 hours and 38 minutes at Nationals Park continued to expose a creeping question:

Can this team score enough runs?

In the middle of the question is Zimmerman and his home in the lineup’s third spot. After going hitless in four at-bats Sunday, including grounding into his eighth double play of the season, his average dropped to .233. When runners are in scoring position, he’s hitting just .218.

Take the eighth inning Sunday. With two on, Zimmerman dribbled a 2-2 pitch from left-hander Eric O’Flaherty into a 4-6-3 double play. That ended the Nationals‘ last, best chance to break through against the Braves‘ hard-throwing bullpen.

“It feels like he’s close,” manager Davey Johnson said. “He feels like he’s inching closer to feeling comfortable out there.”

But Sunday, Zimmerman hit three soft ground balls and flied out to center field. He acknowledged frustration. His words pointed to the calendar.

“I have four months to turn it around and be better,” Zimmerman said.

He insisted his right shoulder that landed him on the 15-day disabled list earlier this season because of an inflamed AC joint is fine.

Since returning from the disabled list May 8, Zimmerman has one home run.

“It might be,” Johnson said when asked if Zimmerman’s shoulder was bothering him, “but he’s not saying anything about it.”

His struggles at the plate, particularly with runners in scoring position, echo the rest of the team. The Nationals are batting .224 in those situations. Only five teams in baseball are worse.

“We had some chances out there, but we just couldn’t get it done,” said Steve Lombardozzi, who combined with Bryce Harper for back-to-back home runs off Braves starter Tommy Hanson in the first inning. “We were a couple hits away from scoring a bunch of runs.”

Added Harper: “We tried to do a little too much in certain situations.”

Those hits never came, as the Nationals were 0 for 5 with men in

scoring position.

And Zimmerman is far from alone in his struggles. There Michael Morse, who is 0 for 8 since he returned from the disabled list. After grounding out to short in each of his four at-bats Saturday, Morse struck out three times and hit a sharp grounder to short Sunday.

Morse’s timing at the plate doesn’t appear to be there in his return to the big leagues after a brief minor league rehabilitation assignment. And, of course, lineup stalwarts Jayson Werth (wrist) and Wilson Ramos (knee) are sidelined for extended periods while second baseman Danny Espinosa hasn’t rediscovered the stroke that delivered 21 home runs last season.

The anemic offense made overcoming a rare off-kilter outing from left-hander Gio Gonzalez difficult, at best. Gonzalez allowed 10 base runners and threw two wild pitches before Johnson yanked him with two outs in the fifth.

“He had no command,” Johnson said.

Gonzalez didn’t want to call his outing bad and preferred to dig through the base runners for positives. That was true for the rest of the clubhouse, too.

“There’s a long ways to go in the season,” Zimmerman said.

But his voice stayed quiet.

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