Still waiting for things to turn

The first quarter of the Nationals' 2013 season has been marked by some pretty dramatic inconsistencies.

Their record currently at a decent but disappointing 23-21. The Nationals have had stretches where it looked like they were ready to put it all together and begin playing to their potential, like during their five-game winning streak two weeks ago.

The vibe in the clubhouse would begin to change, the momentum would seem to start picking up and you'd start thinking that the Nats would turn things into high gear.

Those periods have been countered by ones where the offense has struggled and the starting pitching has been flat-out mediocre, like during the stretch that immediately followed the five-game winning streak, when the Nats lost four of five and scored just 10 runs in that span.

Then we start looking at the overall numbers and shaking our heads again.

The inconsistent play isn't just on a team level; a number of individual players have seen their stat lines resemble a roller coaster through the season's first two months. Adam LaRoche, Dan Haren, Drew Storen and Ryan Zimmerman are just a few who have looked really sharp at times and really scuffled during others.

The Nats have now lost four of seven on their west coast road trip, scoring six runs in each of the three wins and then averaging just 1.5 runs per game in the losses. They won the first game out west, then lost the next two. They put up two straight victories over the Padres, then dropped two in a row.

Of course, the Nationals aren't the only talented team that's been a bit sluggish coming out of the gates. The defending World Series champion Giants, for example, are sitting at 24-20 on the season, tied for second place in the National League West despite having a stacked pitching staff and expectations for the 2013 season that matched the Nationals'.

The Nats go into the three-game series with the Giants that starts tonight with a slash line of .230/.292/.373. The Giants enter this series at AT&T Park with a starting rotation that possesses a 4.87 ERA.

Of course, the Nats still sit just 2 1/2 games behind the Braves in the NL East, so things can change in a hurry. But there's no doubt this Nationals team is underperforming to this point in the season.

Ask anyone, from manager Davey Johnson to general manager Mike Rizzo, and they'll tell you the same.

How do things improve? Getting healthier would be a start.

Bryce Harper might be able to return to the lineup today after missing two games with a sore left knee. His return to the middle of the lineup would be a major boost and provide some more pop around Zimmerman and LaRoche, who have essentially carried the offense for the last 10 days.

The Nats also hope Jayson Werth will be back in the lineup by the end of the week. The team is targeting Friday as Werth's new possible return date as the right fielder tries to get rid of some nagging hamstring tightness.

With Ross Detwiler battling a slight oblique strain, the Nats will send left-handed reliever Zach Duke to the mound for a spot start today. Duke has a 8.40 ERA this season, working just 15 innings to this point as he's seen inconsistent action out of the 'pen.

The Giants will counter with Ryan Vogelsong, whose numbers aren't much better than Duke's this season. The right-hander has allowed 37 earned runs in 41 1/3 innings this season, good for an 8.06 ERA.

Instead of being billed as a battle between two NL powers, this three-game series in San Francisco will be looked at as a chance for two teams to try and get their seasons jumpstarted. Neither team is panicking at this point, sitting above .500 in mid-May, but neither team is all that proud of where things stand coming into this series, either.

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