Ted Leavengood: The malaise of near-.500 baseball

The pitching match-up favored Washington at Nationals Park yesterday. Gio Gonzalez had home field advantage and the better record in the majors going for him against the Orioles’ Jason Hammel. But he could not beat Hammel because he could not get Yamaico Navarro out. The scrub second-baseman, just up from Triple-A Norfolk, got a key hit for the Orioles in the fourth inning that proved the undoing of the Nationals.

When things are going well for a team, their call-ups from Norfolk will produce in the clutch and make a difference. When they are not going your way, you can look like a team that is struggling to stay above .500

Nate Karns, Fernando Abad, Jeff Kobernus - these are some of the names that will have to produce the magic in 2013. Last season, when Wilson Ramos blew out his knee, Sandy Leon and Jonathan Solano hit .292 filling in for him. Last season, the starting rotation did not need a fix until September - but when it did, John Lannan was waiting in the wings. He pulled out several wins down the stretch that were key to holding off the Braves. Every thing seemed to fit together so well last season.

When Stephen Strasburg was pulled from the rotation, there were cries that the 2012 season was a perfect storm for Washington. The critics said that this alignment of the stars might not come again soon for the Nationals. Make the most of it, they said. Risk it all, Strasburg included, for the glory of the moment that might not come again.

The answer from the front office was that the Nationals were prepared to win far beyond 2012. That is no less true today than it was then, but in hindsight, it is becoming harder to deny that some of the events that propped up the Nationals through the hard times in 2012 have not benefited from that old voodoo this time round.

Last season, the key bench players - Steve Lombardozzi, Roger Bernadina and Tyler Moore - combined to hit .276. They filled in ably for any number of players when they went down. This year, their combined average of .179 is almost 100 points lower. The bullpen was lights out until July and then, after a bad stretch, Christian Garcia came up from Triple-A Syracuse and gave them a lift, and all boats seemed to rise when he did. Many of those boats have been beached frequently in April and May.

Can the Nationals find their Yamaico Navarro among the new names being added to the roster? It is a lot of pressure for young players. Sometimes they rise to the occasion and sometimes not.

The weight of expectations has worked wonders for the New York Yankees. Mark Teixeira goes down and you put Lyle Overbay in pinstripes and he suddenly can hit like Lou Gehrig. It’s a funny game.

But hoping that young and untested players from the minors can prop up the wounded expectations of the Nationals is too much to ask. No, the 2013 Nationals are going to have to make their own magic. And to do it they will need to rely not on young pitchers from Syracuse or Double-A Harrisburg, but on the players that are getting the big money to play every day.

However well Nate Karns can pitch Tuesday night will be good enough. The weight of the 2013 season in Washington is not on him. It is on the starting lineup that has not played with the authority it had in 2013. The weight is on Jayson Werth to find his way back to the starting lineup and on Ryan Zimmerman to start hitting with power. It is on the team to break out of the funk that has gripped them since they let the pressure get to them in their first playoffs last October.

Davey Johnson has said that the Nationals need to have fun playing the game again. It has yet to happen. There have been no walk-off hits this season, no chances for a tension-ending dog pile, There have been too few shaving cream pies. The smiles went on vacation during the last few innings of the final game against the Cardinals in October and they have not really found their way back. The malaise of near-.500 baseball has settled over the Nats. It is waiting on someone to dispel it with one swing of the bat.

Ted Leavengood is author of “Clark Griffith, The Old Fox of Washington Baseball,” released in June 2011. He serves as managing editor of the popular Seamheads.com national baseball blog and co-hosts with Chip Greene the “Outta the Parkway” Internet radio show. His work appears here as part of MASNsports.com’s effort to welcome guest bloggers to our little corner of the Internet. 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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