Dave Nichols: Nats getting on base, but sluggers are struggling

The Nationals are far and away off to their best start since arriving in D.C. in 2005. It's fun going to the ballpark with a reasonable expectation that the Nats' starting pitcher is going to keep the team in the game, if not downright dominate the competition. In fact, with the five starters all on a roll right now, you get the feeling that each game in an internal competition between the five of them to see who can outdo the previous performance.

Obviously, that's a good thing regardless. But it's especially important as the Nationals offense hasn't quite clicked yet this season. They've been really patient as a group, as they are third in the National League in on-base percentage and first overall in drawing bases on balls. They're actually first in the league in average number of pitches per at-bat, which means they are knocking starters out quicker and getting into opposition bullpens that much earlier. It's a great approach.

However, the scoring isn't commensurate - yet - with their on-base prowess. The Nats average 3.77 runs per game, 10th in the NL, slightly below league average of 4.02. With the pitching the Nats possess, they can get away with average or slightly below average offense, though it would be nice to have a little more run support. Last night's starter, Jordan Zimmermann, has allowed three earned runs (four total) in 21 innings pitched, a 1.29 ERA. In those 21 innings, the Nats have scored exactly one run.

While the problem seems exacerbated with Zimmermann on the hill, he's not in exclusive company. None of the starters have enjoyed a whole lot of support. The Nats have scored 19 runs in innings one through five so far in their 13 games, an average of 1.46 for the first five innings. From the sixth inning on, they've scored 30, a not-great 2.3 runs on average, but in one fewer inning (usually). The Nats are doing most of their damage once they knock the starter out.

Where the Nats are struggling is making contact and slugging. Of the nine players that have 30 or more plate appearances, only three have a batting average over .250: leadoff hitter Ian Desmond (who's only walked three times in 63 plate appearances) and middle-of-the-order hitters Adam LaRoche (.314) and Jayson Werth (.347). They've only hit six home runs as a team and slugged .344 combined, 11th in the NL.

None of this is meant to take the luster off the Nats' tremendous start. They're one of two teams in Major League Baseball with 10 wins (tied with the Texas Rangers) and own a .769 winning percentage. That's unsustainable over 162 games; only 14 teams since 2000 have been able to finish a season at .600, so the Nats will come back to Earth at some point over the course of a long 162-game schedule. But it's fun to watch nonetheless and they've got the type of pitching staff that makes long losing streaks hard to imagine.

Once Ryan Zimmerman gets heated up (.240, no home runs) and reinforcements come back from the disabled list (Michael Morse) or the minor leagues (Bryce Harper, maybe Tyler Moore), maybe the offense can start to cash in more of the runners they're getting on base. Until then, enjoy those one-run games.

Dave Nichols covers the Nationals for District Sports Page. Read Nichols' Nationals observations as part of MASNsports.com's 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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