For much of the last two months or so, Davey Johnson has been peppered with questions about why the Nationals have been struggling so mightily.
Early on in that period, Johnson didn’t really have much of an answer, other than that the offense largely wasn’t doing its job.
That part is obvious, of course, but there are other factors at play. Overall, the Nats just aren’t performing quite to the level that they did last season, mostly across the board.
The starting pitching largely has been pretty good (3.70 ERA this season), just not as good as it was last year (3.40 ERA). Same with the bullpen (3.52 ERA this year, 3.23 ERA last year).
Outside of the first six weeks of the season, the defense hasn’t been a problem, but the Nats have a .981 fielding percentage this season, compared to .985 last year.
Recently, however, Johnson has started to note that when you add up those minor drop-offs, they start to loom larger. Then, Johnson says, you add in the fact that the Nats aren’t doing the little things right, and you have your reason for the overall team woes.
“I would agree with that,” Adam LaRoche said last night after another Nats loss. “With the exception of the first month, month and a half, defense has been really good. Offensively, you look at the numbers, it’s not like we’ve got half our starting lineup hitting .220. We’ve got some decent averages, some guys with some power, driving in some runs. They’re just so spread out they’re not adding up to wins right now. Keep chipping. I don’t know.”
What does Johnson mean by the little things? We’ve seen plenty of examples over the last few days.
On Saturday, Roger Bernadina came through with a big pinch-hit RBI single to give the Nats a 1-0 lead in the sixth inning. The single scored Chad Tracy from second and moved Wilson Ramos to third. The Nats had a chance to keep piling on the runs and increase their lead, but Bernadina tried to force the issue and advance to second base on the Dodgers’ throw to the plate. He was cut down to end the inning. There went the chance to pile on.
The next inning, with the game tied 1-1, Denard Span reached on a leadoff single and Anthony Rendon was then called upon to bunt Span into scoring position. We can debate whether the bunt was the right call or not, but regardless, it was on Rendon to get the bunt down, move Span over and give Ryan Zimmerman and Bryce Harper a chance to drive him in. Rendon (who has been a middle-of-the-order hitter much of his life and doesn’t have a lot of in-game practice bunting) bunted the ball right back to the pitcher, who threw Span out at second. The Nats didn’t score in the inning.
Last night, with the Nats trailing 5-1, Bernadina pinch-hit in the fifth inning with two runners on and two outs. Bernadina worked the count to 3-1, then swung at a pitch well out of the zone. He struck out swinging one pitch later, ending the inning and leaving Harper - who would have come up representing the tying run had Bernadina taken a walk - standing in the on-deck circle.
In the eighth inning, the Nats trailed 5-3. They’d just cut the Pirates’ lead in half thanks to Jayson Werth’s two-run blast, a homer that gave the Nats a little momentum for the first time all game and brought them within striking distance. They needed their bullpen to put up a zero and keep the score right where it was, but Ian Krol allowed the first two hitters he faced to reach base and then Drew Storen allowed a run to score on a wild pitch. That eventually turned out to be the game-winning run when Werth hit another two-run homer in the ninth. Instead of needing two runs off the Pirates in the ninth, the Nats needed three, and they couldn’t quite get that extra guy across the plate.
These little things seem to consistently be going against the Nationals, and they most definitely add up. You can’t hit .240 as a team and see drop-offs in the other facets of your game while also failing to do the little things right.
“That’s the way it is at this level,” Storen said. “These games, there’s not a lot of margin for error. That’s what happens when you make a mistake. People make you pay for it.
“It’s time for us to make other people start paying for their mistakes.”