Nats’ offense stuck in mediocrity, and Morgan at the center of it

SAN DIEGO - The Nationals won yesterday, so they must lose today. It’s become such a predictable cycle for them that it almost feels ordained as if by some baseball law.

In reality, it’s the practice of a .500 team, good enough on some days to win but too thin on others to survive when problems are exposed.

The Nationals’ 4-2 loss to the Padres on Saturday night was the waning phase of their seeming endless two-day cycle, during which they followed up Friday’s solid win with a loss that raised questions that are coming up enough now to become themes.

Bob and Rob talk with Jim Riggleman after the Nats’ 4-2 loss to the Padres

Do they have enough offense to get by, particularly in the outfield? Is center fielder Nyjer Morgan in a prolonged slump, or is this the new norm? Are the Nationals only a .500 team, or can they be something more?

Those questions looked again on Saturday night like the reasons the Nationals enter every other game wondering if they’re going to fall below .500. Their offense managed just five hits against the Padres, and a number of misplays in the field turned J.D. Martin’s respectable spot start into a loss.

The confluence of those questions on offense and defense was again Morgan, who went 0-for-4 at the plate, dropping his OPS over the last 22 games to .454, and made another exaggerated leap at the wall, missing Nick Hundley’s triple in the fourth inning. That run put the Padres up 4-2, and the margin would hold up for the rest of the game.

Coupled with the two inside-the-park homers Morgan helped allow at Nationals Park earlier this month and his decreased effectiveness on the basepaths (only two steals in four attempts this month), it’s been a long stretch of futility for the man who lit up the Nationals’ offense last summer. If fans are worried about it, Morgan doesn’t seem to be.

“I want to catch everything. It’s just a bad month. It’s a terrible month right now,” Morgan said. “A lot of guys kind of fold when they get a little pressure in those situations like this. But for me, it’s like whatever, man. I’ve just got to keep going out there and keep going. Eventually, they’re going to pop in my glove.”

If they don’t, though, the Nationals have few contingency plans for their outfield. Their plan to go with a platoon in right field was predicated on Josh Willingham being effective every day in left and Morgan doing the same in center. Willingham has held up his end of the bargain, but Morgan, so far, has not, and the Nationals don’t have a suitable backup option for him.

They’re having enough trouble getting production out of their right field spot, where Roger Bernadina has cooled off after looking earlier in the month like he might be able to hold down the position. He was 1-for-4 tonight, and his average has dropped to .253.

“Nyjer is our leadoff hitter. He’s our center fielder. He’s just going to have to come out of it,” manager Jim Riggleman said.

Later, he said: “He shows you how good he can be,” citing a running catch Morgan made in right center to rob Adrian Gonzalez of a base hit in the third inning. “He hasn’t played it like he did last year. He’d be the first one to tell you that. He set a pretty high standard last year. It just hasn’t been quite the same yet this year. But if Nyjer’s not your center fielder and your leadoff hitter, I don’t know what he is.”

That’s the question that, among the Nationals’ other worries that keep them from getting above .500, looms largest right now. With Morgan slumping, Ivan Rodriguez hurt and Ryan Zimmerman having just two extra-base hits in his last 14 games, Washington’s offense has essentially been reduced to two legitimate run producers (Adam Dunn and Josh Willingham), one slap hitter (Cristian Guzman) and one player who’s posted intermittent stretches of productivity when he’s been in the lineup (Ian Desmond).

Whether or not they add a piece from outside or get better from within, the Nationals still need to find the escape from their do-se-do with average baseball. Somehow or another, that probably comes back to Morgan.

“Right now, I’m just cold,” he said. “Last year around this time, I was doing the same thing, batting around .240. Just got to keep going. It’s a long season. It’s just a terrible month, definitely May showers. But June’s gonna boom.”

Bob and Rob talk with Jim Riggleman after the Nats’ 4-2 loss to the Padres