Frustration slowly building, but confidence remains

Davey Johnson says it’s time to get mad. He’s frustrated with the Nationals’ 10-10 start to the 2013 season and wants to see his boys get their act in gear. That should start, Johnson says, with a little anger.

How exactly do the guys do that, though? Do they smash bats over their knees following strikeouts? Do they throw their gloves to the ground after failing to get to a fly ball in the gap? Do they smack a security guard after yet another loss?

(I sure hope not.)

Johnson’s point, of course, is that the players in the Nationals’ clubhouse need to demand more of themselves. They need to approach at-bats with a clear mindset, doing whatever it takes to get on-base or move a runner over. They need to work counts to get opposing starting pitchers out of games earlier.

The Nationals have hit a collective .160 over their last five games, averaging five hits and two runs per contest. That clearly has to change.

The process of changing it, however, isn’t easy.

“What do you do? Are you going to try harder? Swing harder?” said Adam LaRoche, who is 0-for-10 with seven strikeouts. “It doesn’t work. We’ve got to stick with our plan and expect it (to) work eventually.”

Said Danny Espinosa: “It would be easy to (feel frustrated) and just get pissed off at everything. But what’s that going to do? It’s going to put added pressure on every single guy in the clubhouse to try to do more, try to get outside of their game. You’re just putting too much pressure on every single guy. If we just stay with what we’re doing, it’s going to turn our way. Guys are going to start getting hot with the bat. Defense is going to continue to stay good. And we’re going to get better. Our pitching’s going to be there. As long as we stay within ourselves, we’re going to be fine.”

The last thing the Nats want now, players say, is to feel like they have to do too much. It can be tough during stretches like these for hitters to stay within themselves and just focus on handling their own responsibilities when the team is dropping games at such a surprising rate.

There’s a fine line between being frustrated and trying to make changes, and pressing. That’s a line that the Nats need to be careful not to cross right now.

“You run through these times like this when we’re rock bottom, it feels like, and you look up and our record is not terrible,” LaRoche said. “But you also look back and you should’ve won a lot of these games. We’re just not scoring runs. Not getting hits. For the most part, pitchers have been great. And yeah, you can say it’s early, but regardless, you hit one of these in April or you hit one in September, it’s no fun as a team going through it.

“I had the pleasure of going to visit some guys at Walter Reed (Tuesday), and to put things in perspective, our problems are pretty minuscule compared to what some of those guys are going through. It is a game. I don’t think it’s time for drastic changes in here, for guys to lose control. Again, you ride it out. That’s why you play 162 of them.”

If you look back to where the Nationals were at this point last season, it’s easy to compare the records and say that the 2012 Nats were the superior offensive team. Johnson’s bunch was 14-6 through 20 games last season, four games better than their current mark.

Look deeper, however, and you’ll see that the Nats are actually putting up better offensive numbers now than they did a year ago. This year’s team has a slash line of .236/.301/.405, has hit 23 home runs and is averaging 3.7 runs per game. Last year’s team had a slash line of .231/.309/.333 through 20 games, had hit 12 home runs and was averaging 3.5 runs per game.

The pitching (especially starting pitching) last season was spectacular, but the offense was actually worse last spring than it is now. We all know what happened the rest of the way out: The Nats came alive offensively and put up a league-best 98 wins.

That’s not to say the Nats will win 98 games this season or that they’re guaranteed to get back on track. They know that. But to the guys in that clubhouse, the early season frustration is countered by the knowledge that they have a talented offensive unit, one that’s capable of breaking out at any time.

“We’re all winners in here, and we hate losing,” Kurt Suzuki said. “That part stinks. For me, I try to look at the positives. Our pitching staff is throwing the crap out of the ball. Everybody’s pounding the strike zone, pitching like they’re capable of. Now we just have to score runs. Take it little by little, day by day, and slowly improve. And once we hit on all cylinders, we’re going to be tough to beat.”

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