Philadelphia Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard tries to reach the ball thrown by Phillies pitcher Vince Velasquez, during a pick-off attempt of Washington Nationals Michael A. Taylor during the third inning of a baseball game, Tuesday, April 26, 2016 in Washington. Taylor advance to second and Velasquez was charged with an error on the play in a game Philadelphia won 4-3. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
In baseball, the ebbs and flows of the sport will naturally even out. Nonetheless, the Washington Nationals have slight issues that need to be either addressed or fixed before this team can truly be considered World Series contenders.
After the season’s first month, the Nationals have played themselves into first place of the National League Eastern division at 16-7, their best April record since the team moved from Montreal in 2005. But looking at the batting averages, this first-place team’s lack of production is surprising.
Currently, only three Nationals regulars are hitting over .250: Bryce Harper, Daniel Murphy and Wilson Ramos. The lack of production was apparent in a major way during the Phillies’ three-game sweep of Washington at Nationals Park on April 26 to April 28. The Nationals scored only three runs in the series and were shut out in two consecutive days. Anthony Rendon, who is a shell of his 2014 MVP-level performance, has just one RBI and is batting .241. Ryan Zimmerman is at .219 with 19 strikeouts. Danny Espinosa and Michael Taylor are below the Mendoza Line of .200. For all of the (sometimes justified) grief aging Jayson Werth gets from Nats Nation, he is at least driving in runs and is second on the team with 13 RBIs.
Aside from Taylor, all of these players’ names are written on the lineup card by team manager Dusty Baker every day. There are no reinforcements for these players, so getting consistent effort and production is paramount.
The other growing concern is the lackluster start of starter Max Scherzer. His 2-1 record is deceiving—he has been terrible so far compared to his lofty expectations. A 4.50 ERA in five starts and a propensity for giving up the long ball is concerning, to say the least. In five starts across 31 innings this year, he has surrendered 15 runs on 29 hits and 12 non-intentional walks. Five of those 29 hits left the yard, putting him on pace to allow more than the 27 homers he did last season. It seems that he has lost confidence and control of his fastball, which can be fixed. He is a supreme talent, so don’t expect this to continue, but the coaching staff must find a way to get the ace on track.
Luckily, the other starters have been outstanding so far. The meteoric rise of Joe Ross continues to invigorate the fan base with visions of another top-of-the-rotation level starter. After being temporarily shelved due to a blister, Ross faced the St. Louis Cardinals on April 30 and extended his consecutive scoreless innings streak to 19 before giving up a run in the fifth. Facing the highest-scoring team in the majors and a lineup stacked with left-handed batters, Ross provided six standout innings against a team that has flat-out owned the Nats. Winning the first two games of the series on the road, the Nationals have guaranteed a series win in St. Louis for just the second time in team history and the first time since 2007.
The rotation itself, besides Scherzer, has been simply dominant. No other starter has an ERA over 2.25. With Scherzer still working through his worst slump of his career, it seems that Stephen Strasburg has taken it upon himself to hold down the team as its ace.
If Washington can get leadoff man Ben Revere back from the disabled list and into the lineup regularly, and see improvement from the slumping players, things will continue to look up for the Nationals.