- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 23, 2013

As Davey Johnson made himself comfortable in the dugout at AT&T Park on Wednesday morning, he looked ready for the Washington Nationals’ 10-game road trip to be over. Gray stubble covered his usually clean-shaven chin.

He had spent the morning putting out a fire ignited when his closer made condescending remarks about a play involving the team’s 20-year-old phenom. The day before that, he was busy informing right-hander Ryan Mattheus just what he thought about the reliever’s decision to punch his locker and break his pitching hand in the process.

The list could go on. Injuries, ineffectiveness, etc. — they all plagued the Nationals since they left Washington and hovered around .500. The trip did, however, end on a high note with a 2-1 extra-innings victory Wednesday.

“My job is to keep these guys comfortable in the clubhouse,” Johnson said. “You’re never as bad as you look when you lose, and you’re never as good as you look when you win. We’ve been through a rough stretch here. … But we’re certainly very capable. It’s going to happen soon enough. It’s never soon enough for me, and it’s never soon enough for the media.”

Johnson was then asked if he felt he had control of things inside the clubhouse — if his finger was directly on the pulse, as he indicated.

“I hope so,” he said. “Otherwise I would recommend they fire me.”

It seemed a moment worthy of a chuckle, or at least a slight smile from the usually affable manager. But Johnson was serious. And he was not ready to recommend such a drastic measure.

As the Nationals get set to open a five-game homestand against the Philadelphia Phillies and the Baltimore Orioles, they’ve played just less than 30 percent of their highly anticipated 2013 season. And they’re a team that is one game better than .500.

They feel they’re getting closer. That they’re primed for a breakout, and that no one’s ever won a title in May. But they still have their share of issues.

Their bullpen, once thought to be among the best in the league, has accounted for 32 percent of the runs they’ve allowed this season. They’re letting inherited runners score 34 percent of the time — the fifth-highest mark in the league.

Rafael Soriano already has given up half as many home runs as he has averaged per season during his career. Committing one of the worst sins of a reliever, Drew Storen has allowed the first batter he’s faced to reach base in eight of the 18 appearances he’s made.

Still, it is the collective failings of their offense that general manager Mike Rizzo views as the biggest area of needed improvement at this point.

“We have to perform better, especially in situations that are conducive to tacking on runs and doing the little things to execute our game plan better,” Rizzo said. “When you’re facing pitchers like Matt Cain and [Zack Greinke] and [Clayton Kershaw], you have one or two chances to get to them during the game, just like other teams have one or two chances of getting to our good starting pitchers. When you miss those chances and aren’t playing efficient baseball, it’s hard to continually score a lot of runs.

“I think that’s the biggest thing we have to address, our situational hitting and scoring runs when we have to score runs — especially when you could drive in runs without getting a hit. Those are at-bats we have to be better at.”

The Nationals have scored just 29 runs from the seventh inning on this season. With a runner on third base and less than two outs, they have the fourth-worst mark in the National League for bringing him home. Their bench, one of their strengths in 2012, has precisely one RBI: Chad Tracy’s game-winning homer in extra innings against the Padres on May 17.

There are, as Johnson put it, “too many outs in the lineup,” right now.

But this is largely the same team the Nationals won 98 games with in 2012. It’s the same team that looked like a preseason monster. And that’s why it appears they’ll look for improvement from the talent they have, instead of making drastic changes.

“You have to be comfortable with the players you have and the roster you have,” Rizzo said. “You have to have a pulse on what your players are all about and what their track record is. You always have to balance what’s best for the player. Sometimes what’s best for the player is to send him down to the minor leagues to get more work, to get more comfortable, to try and make adjustments at a less stressful situation.

“But there comes a time in development where you have to learn how to grind it through and get through it at the major league level. I think we put together a roster that we feel is going to contend. … We feel we have the roster in place to win a lot of games. We felt that in spring training, we felt that in the winter, and I still have all the confidence in the world that this is the team that’s going to play deep into the season.”

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