- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 4, 2013

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Can you blame Davey Johnson?

In a 24-hour span this week, the loquacious Nationals manager suggested he may be “going crazy” or headed for the “loony bin,” joked he was an “idiot,” invoked Frank Howard and Gen. Martin Dempsey, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, along with a Ouija board.

No, the good-natured Johnson isn’t about to crack up. He’s stuck in the same limbo as the rest of Washington, hounded by a question behind the self-deprecating humor that even the most advanced statistics or experienced manager can’t answer.

When will the Nationals hit consistently?

The manager can shuffle his lineup, grow slump-busting beards and spin one entertaining press conference after another in an attempt to find a solution.

In the meantime, Johnson’s only real path forward is as attractive as watching the cartoon-sized reincarnation of William Howard Taft waddle around Nationals Park.

Patience.

That’s not an easy word for a season that’s floundered around .500, more bust than World Series. The campaign has resembled a series of funhouse mirrors, twisting and distorting conventional wisdom and thought-out winter transactions and years of proven track records into a team that struggles to hit baseballs much of the time.

The numbers are the stuff that makes up quiet Octobers. The Nationals rank 28th in runs scored and on-base percentage, 27th in batting average and jolt up to 23rd in slugging percentage. That’s offset a pitching staff that ranks among baseball’s top third, despite churning through nine starting pitchers and 13 relievers.

Injuries haven’t been kind to Johnson’s sanity or efforts to weave together a coherent lineup, occurring at a rate rivaled only by the maladies that befell the ringers on the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant’s softball team back in 1992. Catcher Wilson Ramos’ return from the 15-day disabled list Thursday finally returned the Nationals — knock on wood — to a normal group of regulars. But the earlier absences of Bryce Harper and Jayson Werth thrust the slump-ridden bench into extended action and accentuated the offensive woes.

Six different players have started in left field; five each in right and center. That’s far from the fleet, offensive-minded outfield envisioned after acquiring center fielder Denard Span last offseason.

All told, Roger Bernadina, Steve Lombardozzi, Tyler Moore and Chad Tracy have taken 17 percent of the team’s at-bats with a negative-three wins above replacement to show for the opportunity. Lombardozzi, who has more at-bats than Harper, has been the group’s best player thanks to a .233 average and .246 on-base percentage.

No one imagined a season cloaked in expectation to include Triple-A stalwarts like Eury Perez and Jeff Kobernus and Chris Marrero, among others, before rosters expand in September.

Werth and Harper, in comparision, own 13 percent of the team’s at-bats. That imbalance is enough to rob any manager of sleep or, at least, leave him quoting Howard.

The turmoil created a series of offensive black holes in the Nationals‘ starting nine. The Nos. 2, 6, 7 and 8 spots all have on-base percentages under .300, numbers that lead to, well, managers not shaving in hopes of sparking change. Well, change other than itching.

There’s little Johnson can do other than hope the reunited starters can remain healthy and start producing at levels within hailing distance of their career averages before the season slips further away. This isn’t easy or comfortable. He has to wait.

The only obvious starting spot to upgrade was swapping hot-hitting prospect Anthony Rendon for banged-up Danny Espinosa at second base. That’s been one of the few offensive success stories, as Rendon has turned into a reliable regular while the once-dependable Espinosa, exiled to Triple-A, has slumped to a .088 average with 34 strikeouts in 20 games with Syracuse.

There isn’t another position in the field to upgrade. Players who have hit before need to hit again. The solution is that simple.

What else is Johnson supposed to do?

The manager can toy with lineups, like hitting Ian Desmond in the No. 2 hole Thursday. Patience, though, is what’s left. There’s nothing crazy about that.