The Washington Times - May 28, 2008, 06:41PM

As I sit here in the press box at Petco Park, still thinking about last night’s 4-2 loss to the Padres, it occurs to me that the Nationals’ season has gone almost exactly the opposite of how observers (and even club officials) figured it would back in spring training. Think back to March. What were supposed to be the Nats’ areas of strength? The bullpen and hopefully an improved offense that had been restocked with the likes of Paul Lo Duca, Lastings Milledge, a healthy Nick Johnson, a full season of Wily Mo Pena and a revamped bench full of veterans.

Well, the bullpen has a collective 4.38 ERA. Not terrible, but not as good as we thought it would be. And with Chad Cordero out, way too much of the load has been thrown upon the only three guys Manny Acta trusts in tight situations: Jon Rauch, Saul Rivera and Luis Ayala. Combined with Cordero, those four have a 3.80 ERA.


Everyone else who has pitched in relief (Jesus Colome, Joel Hanrahan, Ray King, Charlie Manning, Mike O’Connor, Brian Sanches and Chris Schroder) has a combined 4.98 ERA. Someone from that group has got to step up and join the Big Three in giving Acta quality innings in close ballgames. The offense, as we all know, is among the worst in baseball. They enter tonight with the lowest batting average in the majors (.233), not to mention a piddling 37 homers (24th in the majors), .310 OBP (28th) and .354 slugging percentage (last in the majors).

So how in the world has this team managed to play above .500 ball since April 22 (17-16 over that span, believe it or not)? It’s because of quality starting pitching, the last thing this team was supposed to have coming into the season. The rotation’s overall season ERA is 4.45, not all that great. But remember, that includes some early-season disasters from Jason Bergmann and Matt Chico. Take Chico (0-6, 6.19 ERA) out of the equation, and the rest of the starters’ ERA drops to a more respectable 4.12. In other words, if the Nats could just get a little more semblance of offense and just a bit better performance out of the bullpen, this team could be playing much better baseball.

Mark Zuckerman