- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 15, 2011

Sunday’s game against the Florida Marlins began in familiar fashion for the Washington Nationals. For the third time in four days, their leadoff batter, Roger Bernadina, bunted for a hit, after which the third baseman - in this case Greg Dobbs - edged up on the grass to discourage any further Adventures in Small Ball.

When your team is batting a major-league-low .222, as the Nats were at the start of the day, a certain amount of creativity is required. You look to bunt where you can. You look to steal where you can. You look to move the runner along where you can. Runs aren’t so much scored sometimes as they are invented.

As Bernadina put it, “I love to swing the bat, but I’m the leadoff guy now. Got to get on base.”

Somehow, some way. (Even if that way was more popular in 1911 than 2011.)

So Bernadina got on … and then stuff started happening, the kind of stuff that has rarely happened for the Nationals this season. By the time they were done, they had pieced together a six-run first inning - tying a Nats record and spurring an 8-4 win at the home ball yard.

Six runs in one inning. It’s enough to make a Nationals fan woozy. After all, the club had been averaging fewer runs this season (3.72) than the Capitals did goals a year ago (3.87). Worse, recently, in the space of week, Nats batters had struck out 17 times against these same Marlins (in 10 innings) and 15 more against the Braves (also in 10 innings). While their pitchers, in other words, have been doing a great job of pitching to contact, their batters have been doing a lousy one of swinging to contact.

Obviously, the extended loss of their best hitter, Ryan Zimmerman, who needed abdominal surgery and has missed 32 games (and counting), hasn’t helped matters. But neither have batting averages like these, all of them in Sunday’s lineup: .198 (Danny Espinosa), .223 (Jayson Werth), .192 (Adam LaRoche), .217 (Pudge Rodriguez), .230 (Jerry Hairston Jr.) and .215 (Alex Cora, subbing for .221-hitting Ian Desmond).

Fortunately for the Nationals, the Marlins trotted out a pitcher who has been struggling more than they have. Since coming over from the Yankees, Javier Vazquez hasn’t been able to get anybody out. His outing against the Nats, lowlighted by that six-run tsunami of a first, made him eight for eight this season in, uh, non-quality starts.

The Nats didn’t exactly shell him that inning, but they hit the ball in the right places. They also beat three throws to first (Bernadina on his bunt, Werth on a grounder up the middle and Hairston on a fielder’s choice that almost was an inning-ending double play). The biggest blow, as it turned out, was struck by pitcher Jason Marquis, who knocked in the last two runs with a double into the left-field corner.

“Getting ‘em early … that’s been a little bit of an issue for us,” manager Jim Riggleman said.

So, come to think of it, has getting ‘em late and getting ‘em in the middle. Amazingly, though, the Nats have managed to avoid sliding into the abyss in these first 40 games. In fact, they’re just below .500 (19-21), despite a rugged early schedule and, lest we forget, no Stephen Strasburg. Steadier starting pitching has had a lot to do with it. (Marquis, 2-9 and utterly lost last season, is 5-1 after Sunday’s businesslike victory.) The defense also is better, as evidenced by Bernadina’s diving web gem in the first game of the Marlins series.

Still, it’s hard not to look longingly at Hagerstown Suns box scores and wonder when Bryce Harper is going to join the big club. The Nationals, you get the sense, have never had hitter like this kid. But Harper is just 18, and his major-league ETA is probably a year or more away. So Nats followers, at this point, can only fantasize about what his South Atlantic League numbers (.393 average, nine HR in 112 AB, 1.173 OPS going into Sunday) might translate into in the bigs.

In the meantime, they have Marquis’ continuing dexterity with a bat to marvel at. In addition to his double, the veteran right-hander had a single against Vazquez to hike his average to .333, putting him behind only Bernadina (.344) among current regulars.

It’s just his way, he said, “of turning two-run games into four-run games and making it a little easier on yourself. You definitely need some of those. You don’t want to wear yourself out mentally [with tight, low-scoring games] every time you step on the field.”

Not to worry, though. The Nationals aren’t so hard up for hits that Riggleman would let Marquis bat for himself later this week in Baltimore, when the DH will be in effect. (“No,” the manager said quickly when the subject was raised.) Let’s hope, for the Nats’ sake, the subject doesn’t come up again.

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