Dave Nichols: Nationals face daunting schedule over next two weeks

The 2011 Washington Nationals have been hovering around .500 most of the season. They currently sit at 10-12 as a result of dropping five of their last six games, including Tuesday night's 6-4 loss to the New York Mets, an imminently winnable game as manager Jim Riggleman said in his press conference after the game.

"A little something happen here or there and we could have won that ball game," Riggleman rationalized after the loss. That seems to be a popular sentiment. But the fact that they just aren't hitting compounds the problem when the little things don't go their way.

This was supposed to be the part of the early-season schedule when the Nats were supposed to be making hay, with a week of games against the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Mets. But they dropped two of three soggy games over the weekend to the Pirates and fell in the series opener to the Mets, now winners of five in a row. If Tom Gorzelanny can't stop the bleeding tonight, the Nationals will slip into last place in the National League East.

And things only get more difficult on the schedule. After the Mets leave town, the Nats host the defending World Series champion San Francisco Giants for four games, then head out for a 10-day, nine-game road trip that will have them visit Philadelphia (15-8), arch-nemesis Florida (15-7) and Atlanta (12-13), division foes all.

From reports, it sounds like Ryan Zimmerman won't rejoin the team before the end of the homestand, as he just resumed light baseball activities yesterday. Once he gets up to speed, he'll still need a short minor league rehab stint as well, so it'll at least be a week to 10 days before he's in the lineup yet.

And boy, do they need him back in the lineup. The Nats' offense is dreadful, hitting .224/.303/.350 as a team. That's 15th, 13th and 14th in the league in those categories respectively, and they are 13th overall in the league in runs scored (at just 3.95 per game). The Nationals are now 1-11 in games when they've scored fewer than five runs.

Jayson Werth, the $126 million man, hit his fourth home run of the season Tuesday night, and is on pace for 29 for the season. But he has just six RBIs to go along with the homers and he's hitting .220/.304/.427 In fact, a look at Werth's peripheral statistics indicate he's grounding out almost double his career rate, and his line drive rate is two-thirds his standard. That's alarming.

Is it too late for the offense to turn things around? Of course not. Werth and Adam LaRoche have been two of the more reliable hitters in the game over the last few seasons. It could just be a matter of timing, and the Nats might turn out to be lucky they've been able to keep their record around .500 while their best players have struggled or missed time due to injury, and the wins will pick back up when they return to career norms. Let's not consider the other option at this point.

The next two weeks will tell us who this Nationals team really is. The schedule is brutal, they don't know when their best player will rejoin the lineup and only one starting position player has a batting average higher than .250, and he's a 23-year old catcher. Regardless, it'll be a strong test of the makeup of this team and their manager.

Dave Nichols covers the Washington Nationals for Nats News Network. Read Nichols' Nationals observations as MASNsports.com begins a season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our site. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.

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