PHILADELPHIA — There was one out in the third inning Monday when Michael Young sent a rocket to the wall in straightaway center field. Washington Nationals center fielder Jeff Kobernus leaped at the wall and tried to corral it. By the time the ball made it back to the infield, Young was standing on third base with a triple.
And then, Dan Haren’s thought process changed.
“I was obviously trying to minimize the run,” Haren said after the Nationals’ walk-off loss to the Phillies. Haren, working in a tie game, walked the next two batters before a sinking liner skipped past diving right fielder Jayson Werth to score two Phillies runs.
“My game isn’t walking guys,” explained Haren, who possesses the highest strikeout-to-walk ratio of any pitcher in MLB history who has started 200 games. “My game isn’t nibbling around the zone. My game is attacking hitters.”
But this season, pitching for a team that offers its starters the second-worst run support in the major leagues, Haren changed the way he attacked the next two hitters because Young was standing on third base.
“The runs have been somewhat of a premium,” Haren said, stating the obvious about one of the worst offensive units in the league. “I tried my best to keep that run from coming in.”
So the Nationals, perhaps without meaning to, unveiled another consequence of having an offense that has struggled so mightily for consistency that in 40 of their 69 games this season they’ve scored three runs or fewer: They’re putting significant added stress on their pitching staff.
Haren may not be the best example of how the Nationals’ pitchers have been wronged thus far this season by their offense. He readily acknowledged he has not caught many breaks, but also combined that with “just pitching like crap.”
Still, he is among the four Nationals starters who rank in the National League’s 25 least supported pitchers this season. Gio Gonzalez (3.50 runs per game), Ross Detwiler (3.67 runs per game) and Stephen Strasburg can also count themselves as part of that unlucky group.
Jordan Zimmermann, for years the leader in this category, has gotten the most at 4.43 runs per game started. For comparison’s sake, the St. Louis Cardinals have four starters among the top 30 most supported in the National League. Zimmermann is the Nationals’ only one.
Haren’s support is paltry, with the Nationals scoring 2.86 runs per game he starts, and the seventh-worst mark in the major leagues. But Strasburg has borne the brunt of the Nationals’ offensive woes.
The Nationals’ ace has started 13 games and has the 12th-best ERA (2.50) in the majors among qualified pitchers.
His run support is so criminally low, at 2.69 runs per game, that despite averaging 6 1/3 innings and 1.69 earned runs per game, his record is 3-6.
Only Ricky Nolasco and Wade LeBlanc of the Miami Marlins are supported less. And they pitch for a team widely considered among the worst two in the major leagues.
“That’s always what they have to deal with it,” said manager Davey Johnson. “‘We don’t score any, they don’t get any.’ That’s always the way you have to think.”
The Nationals’ underperforming offense is an obvious problem. They’re scoring 0.3 runs per game fewer than they did through their first 69 contests in 2012, and they’ve let countless well-pitched games slip away because of ineffective offense — often against pitchers other teams seem to have little trouble crushing.
But if it’s forcing the Nationals’ pitchers to change their thinking on the mound, to fear that anything less than perfection will result in another loss — for them and the team — it becomes an additional issue.
And it’s often only natural for the pitchers to begin to feel that way.
“[I tell them], ‘I don’t worry and I don’t want you guys to worry about what we score,’” said pitching coach Steve McCatty. “‘You go out and pitch and do your best to keep them from scoring.’ You’ve got to be willing to trade an out for the run. You don’t like giving up runs but you’re willing to do it because it’s one instead of three.
“Am I worried that it’s playing on their minds? I hope not because we talk about it: ‘You can’t worry about what we score.’ If they’re starting to do that, you’re pitching not to lose, instead of to win. I think that’s a real precarious situation to get to when you pitch.”
For now, all they can do is hope that it doesn’t remain an issue for long.
“We’ve struggled, but there’s a whole lot of the season ahead of us,” Johnson said. “I look at it like things happen for a reason. I think this is good. Struggle now, learn how to come back.”