- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 3, 2007

SAN DIEGO — There’s a common saying in baseball that players, coaches and managers use when a team is struggling at this stage of the season.

“It’s still early,” they will say, often adding that real judgments can’t be made about a club until it reaches the 30- or 40-game mark.

That has been a common phrase around the Washington Nationals’ clubhouse the last few weeks as the team fights through its offensive struggles. But it might not fly much longer.

The Nationals had played 27 games entering last night, and after getting shut out in two of their previous three contests, at least one veteran leader voiced his concern about the club’s lackluster performance at the plate.

“It’s not acceptable to keep saying, ‘Oh it’s all right. The season’s early. We’re going to get out of this.’ That’s not acceptable,” catcher Brian Schneider said following Tuesday night’s 3-0 loss to the San Diego Padres in which Washington managed just three hits. “We need to get the job done now. We just haven’t done it. The pitching staff’s doing the job for us right now. We need to get them some runs.”

The Nationals have done a poor job supporting their surprisingly effective starting rotation in recent weeks. The rotation posted a 2.88 ERA over its last eight games, yet managed to earn only three wins because the lineup produced an average of 2.38 runs.

Those numbers only cover the last eight games, but that has been a season-long problem. Washington ranks last in the National League in batting average (.230), runs (81), homers (12), slugging percentage (.326) and total bases (304), third-to-last in on-base percentage (.311) and second-to-last in runners left on base (223).

It’s that last category that weighs most on hitting coach Mitchell Page’s mind. Page admittedly isn’t concerned with players’ batting averages right now. He’s more concerned with their lack of production in clutch situations and the pressure they’re putting on themselves to succeed in those situations.

“I just think they’re trying to do too much instead of staying within themselves and looking for a good, quality pitch to hit,” Page said before last night’s game. “They might get that pitch, but they’re overswinging and popping it up. I think they’re trying to do a little bit extra than what they’d normally do.”

It would be one thing if only one or two mainstays in the Nationals’ lineup were struggling. But as Page noted, nearly every one of his regulars (aside from perhaps center fielder Ryan Church) has been in some kind of funk since Opening Day.

Ryan Zimmerman is hitting only .230 with one homer and eight RBI. Austin Kearns has driven in just seven runs. Leadoff man Felipe Lopez’s average is down to .257, and Dmitri Young’s has dropped to .245. Schneider needed two hits Tuesday night to raise his average to .203.

“I think it’s contagious,” Zimmerman said. “Hitting is contagious, good and bad. It’s frustrating, but it’s part of the game. You’ve just got to go through it.”

The Nationals are quick to point out they have been playing without a healthy lineup all season. Starters Nook Logan and Cristian Guzman each got hurt Opening Day and haven’t played since, and while both players are known more for their defense than their bats, their expected return to the lineup next week should help bolster the club’s bench.

The biggest void in the Washington lineup, though, remains cleanup hitter Nick Johnson, who has been sorely missed since he broke his right leg in September in New York. The Nationals have not been able to make up for the lack of Johnson’s production in the heart of the lineup, not to mention the domino effect he has on the players around him.

“It just makes everybody better,” manager Manny Acta said. “I’ve been on the other side, and he’s a guy that other teams fear. He’s good, let’s put it that way.”

It was an encouraging sign, then, when Johnson yesterday hit balls off a tee for the first time since suffering his injury. The 28-year-old admittedly struggled to make solid contact in his first extensive swinging session in seven months, but he’s hopeful his stroke will come back quickly as he progresses through his rehabilitation program.

There remains no official timetable on Johnson’s return — he still hasn’t hit live pitching or taken ground balls in the field — but he has made significant strides the last couple of weeks and is pining for the day he returns to the lineup.

“I’ve been antsy,” he said. “I’d like to get out there and compete. I just can’t do it right now.”

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