Missing links help Nats beat Pirates

Two weeks ago, the Nationals were plodding through a West Coast road trip with a lineup that looked as short as it had all season. Catcher Ivan Rodriguez was on the disabled list, and aside from the stellar middle of their order, the Nationals couldn’t find anyone to hit.

Those problems are finally starting to dissipate - Rodriguez is back, the middle of the Nationals’ order is still mashing and on Thursday night, they even proved they could produce some runs at the bottom of the lineup.

The answers on Thursday night might not turn out to be answers in the long term; Roger Bernadina is getting a long look as the full-time right fielder, and Michael Morse, who was in the mix to play there at the beginning of the season, only started in right on Thursday as Bernadina moved over to center. But both players have been locked in lately, and were again in the 4-2 win over the Pirates on Thursday.

Morse went 3-for-3, hitting his first homer of the season and Bernadina was 1-for-2 with two walks. The Nationals’ other three runs came from the usual suspects - Adam Dunn and Josh Willingham each hit homers - but the greater effect might come if the Nationals can do damage through the lineup in the same way they did on Thursday, securing their first sweep of the season.

Jim Riggleman talks with the media about the Nats’ 4-2 win over the Pirates

“I think we’re noticing, and a lot of people are noticing around baseball, that we’ve got some good pitching, especially with the new guys,” Morse said. “And our team can hit, flat-out hit.”

The role of Morse in all this is particularly intriguing; he started off strong this spring, and looked like he would get most of the at-bats against left-handed pitchers in right field to start the year. But he strained his left calf in the second game of the season, and spent nearly a month on the disabled list. When he returned, the Nationals had decided to give Bernadina a chance to hold down the right field job.

“I just don’t have a spot to put him out there every day,” Riggleman said. “If it turns out to be that, that’s the way it’ll be. But we’re really looking at Bernadina in right field. ... It’s just tough to put Mike anywhere but right field right now, and and Bernie’s holding that down against right-handed pitching.”

Morse, though, has actually been fairly effective in a bench role; he’s 3-for-9 as a pinch hitter, igniting a pair of ninth-inning rallies with hits off the bench in the last week.

“He’s a good pinch hitter,” Riggleman said. “You’ve got to have some guys who can come off the bench and get a hit for you, and he’s a nice option there, too.”

And Bernadina got a rare look against a lefty on Thursday, playing center field to spell Nyjer Morgan. He’s hitting .273 with a .341 on-base percentage, and appears to be moving closer to locking down the job on a permanent basis.

“He’s getting a great opportunity,” Riggleman said before the game. “He’s not 21 anymore. It’s his time. We’d like to get him a couple hundred at-bats, so we can say he is the answer or he’s not.”

But if he is, and Morse can contribute in spots, the Nationals’ lineup starts to look a lot better. They probably would’ve won on Thursday without the bottom-of-the-lineup contributions. That doesn’t mean, though, they won’t be a key for this team going forward.