Too early to panic over offensive struggles

VIERA, Fla. - In their last three games, the Nationals have been shut out twice.

They’ve scored more than three runs in a game only once in their last six contests, are hitting .249 as a team and have put up just 69 runs for the Grapefruit League season, fourth-worst in the majors.

“I don’t want them peaking too early,” manager Davey Johnson said yesterday of his hitters, before pausing and cracking a smile. “And we’re not.”

Is it time to panic? Do the spring struggles indicate that the Nats are doomed to sit towards the bottom of the league in offensive production this year?

Let’s take it easy with all that. We’re still in March, folks.

If the Nats are hitting .249 and scoring 3.6 runs per game in May or June, we can start talking about what needs to get fixed. For now, we should take note of the fact that Johnson has yet to write out his full starting lineup for a spring game and two of the Nats’ middle-of-the-order sluggers - Michael Morse and Adam LaRoche - have combined for just 15 spring at-bats because of injuries.

“We’re way ahead of what I’ve seen the last couple years in our approach, almost to a man,” Johnson said, noting that he in no way is concerned about the lack of run production this spring. “That’s all I care about, is our approach and how we’re standing in the hitting area and are we aggressive, things like that.

“I like the approach ... and if I didn’t like it, I’d tell you that, too.”

There are a number of factors which go into spring training statistics, some of which can easily be overlooked.

Yesterday, for example, the Nats were on the road, and as a result, left most of their veteran starters back in Viera. They fielded a lineup which likely contained only two guys - Rick Ankiel and Wilson Ramos - who will start on opening day.

In addition, Johnson started a host of lefties yesterday - Ankiel, Chad Tracy and Roger Bernadina - against a lefty starter because he wanted to see what those guys could do against a southpaw. That’s part of what spring is about. In the regular season, Johnson likely would have overloaded his lineup with righties, and the offensive results might have been different.

Yes, Wilson Ramos is hitting below the Mendoza line at .179, Danny Espinosa doesn’t have a single extra-base hit in 36 at-bats and has a lowly .504 OPS, and Ian Desmond hasn’t exactly been scorching the ball this spring. But Ryan Zimmerman (1.430 OPS) and Jayson Werth (.958 OPS) are producing, and even more importantly, Johnson has seen his starters making strides as spring has gone on.

“I’m really happy with the progress I’m seeing from Espy and Desi and Zim and Werth,” Johnson said. “Almost everybody, to a man. I like where we’re at.

“I look for signs of ‘Are we struggling, or are we still going after it?’ And I like the way we’re going after it. We’ve got 13 more games. And I think most guys are pretty close. A couple guys aren’t able to even come on the field, but I got Ankiel back, and I think we’re going to get LaRoche back soon, and I’m optimistic for Morse. A lot of clubs are in worse shape than we are.”

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