- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 15, 2016

Sent out to the on-deck circle in the ninth inning was a surprise. Daniel Murphy, toting his .402 average, moved past the dugout steps and near the white circle to wait his turn. Having Murphy pinch hit on a day that was otherwise a break for him is logical, in general terms. That he replaced third baseman Anthony Rendon was an eye-opener and showed the state of the Washington Nationals’ offense.

Almost a quarter into the season, the Nationals have been dragged along by three bats: those belonging to Murphy, Bryce Harper and Wilson Ramos. Little is being offered elsewhere, which was again apparent in Sunday’s 5-1 loss to the Miami Marlins.

Harper leads the National League in on-base percentage. Murphy is seventh and leads the league in batting average. Ramos is a surprising 13th in on-base percentage. For much of the season, the catcher has been hovering around the .400 mark.

Around them are potholes. Ryan Zimmerman is hitting .234. Jayson Werth is just .208 with a .265 on-base percentage. Rendon is hitting .227. Shortstop Danny Espinosa is at .214.

Baker recently moved Murphy, off Sunday with what the team called an “illness” before taking a late at-bat, to hit behind Harper. He bumped down Zimmerman. The manager said both players were fine with the move.

But, what’s happening in front of Harper has been a bigger problem than behind him. Leadoff man Ben Revere’s average has plummeted to .093. He never walked much in his career, working his way to the bases by hitting. When that evaporates, Revere’s path to being an offensive catalyst is limited.

“It’s frustrating and all, but you have to keep battling,” Revere said.

The box score is a bit of a betrayal to Revere. Often, in the last homestand, he has hit line drives, though entering Sunday, his batting average on balls in play was a stunningly low .111, according to FanGraphs.com. For his career, that number is .322.

“It’s there, but it’s just, the rhythm and everything is offset,” Revere said. “Just keep swinging, swinging, swinging.”

Revere has just 43 at-bats because he strained an oblique opening day. He missed more than a month, returning on May 6. Some of his teammates are already more than 100 at-bats ahead of him, which is reasoning to lean on — for now.

Such a grace period doesn’t apply to other places in the lineup. In the last season-plus, Werth has hit .217. Across the board, his numbers have declined significantly. His power has dissipated, his on-base percentage has gone down and his defensive WAR continues to become worse. Werth insisted in spring training that he is far from done. Evidence that could be true is that Werth finished in the top 20 of MVP voting in 2014. Hints his claim may not be accurate are scattered through his recent injuries and time in the batter’s box. He’ll be 37 by the end of the week.

Zimmerman has not played a full season since 2013, which is also the last time he hit more than 20 home runs. He hoped a hot August and September would spill into this season. They have not. Opponents have walked Harper over and over in order to tussle with Zimmerman — a strategy that was followed even with Murphy behind him. It worked.

Zimmerman, who traditionally shows little emotion, has shown frustration at the plate this season. In one instance, after being called out on strikes at the end of April, Zimmerman turned away from the umpire and said, “Ball, ball ball,” to no one in particular. On Sunday, he hit an inside-the-park home run when the Marlins’ Marcell Ozuna and Giancarlo Stanton collided, then stayed down. Zimmerman was pleased they were all right afterward, but as for the hit? “I’ll take it,” he said.

Perhaps the biggest lineup conundrum is Rendon. His second season in the major leagues was a stunner. He finished fifth in the MVP voting in 2014. He was also the Silver Slugger Award winner for third basemen. Last season, he was among the numerous Nationals players to lose a significant chunk of the season because of an injury, then never move into a place of comfort and success.

“[Hitting coach] Rick Schu and Jacque [Jones] and him are constantly trying to find out what the problem is,” Nationals manager Dusty Baker said. “Right now, it seems like he’s not getting the bat head out front. We know Anthony can hit. Everybody knows Anthony can hit. But, you miss as much time as he missed last year, he’s got to find his groove again. We know Anthony’s going to hit. Big time.”

With his options so limited, Baker took the unusual step of sitting Rendon down in a key spot. He sent Murphy to the plate in the bottom of the ninth inning, with two runners on base, two out and the Nationals trailing by four. Harper swung gently on deck as the basis for the move. If he was to come up with the bases loaded, he could tie the game in one swing. But, Murphy popped up a 3-2 pitch, causing the MVP, and the everyone else at the park, to turn and resume their Sunday elsewhere.

Piled together, the Nationals’ offense resides in the middle of the National League. Despite offseason changes to specifically address a high strikeout rate, the Nationals have the fifth-most whiffs in the NL. Baker has few places to turn. Michael A. Taylor struggled when he replaced Revere. The offensive problems are among the young and old. Washington is forced to stake its offensive season around Rendon, Werth and Zimmerman. The early returns show what a risk that may become.

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