After the Nationals’ 1-0 loss to the Royals on Wednesday - a game in which Stephen Strasburg, again, did the politically correct thing by flagellating himself for giving up a run as though he’s expected to surrender none - outfielder Josh Willingham was asked if Washington had missed an opportunity.
“It’s frustrating when you get pitching and you don’t score any runs,” Willingham said. “But sometimes you don’t score any runs. Sometimes you’re not going to pitch well. It’s part of baseball.”
It’s part of baseball. But when it happens with the regularity that it has in the last week for the Nationals, it’s a symptom of a problem.
The Nationals have lost games by scores of 2-1, 1-0, and 1-0 again in the last six days. They’ve won games by scores of 2-1 and 4-3. In two of those games, they’ve wasted solid-to-stellar pitching by Strasburg, and on Wednesday, they let a chance to sweep the 30-win Royals slip through their fingers.
This increasingly looks like a team that can pitch well enough to hang around and pass close games to its impressive bullpen, if only it can score enough runs. Right now, the Nationals can’t.
They are hitting .247 as a team this month, but what’s worse, they have a .302 on-base percentage. An offense that pushed enough runs across the plate to end up on the right side of close games early this season hasn’t done it all month. It’s why the Nationals are 7-14, winning only two of the four times Strasburg has pitched. They lost again on Wednesday, despite Strasburg allowing one run in six innings.
“At the end of the year, our numbers will probably be the same as they always are,” third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. “But since we haven’t scored in a week or so, that’s what everybody asks about. Nobody asks about it when we’re scoring six, seven, eight runs a game, and that’s how it evens out. It’s obviously frustrating. We want to do it all season, but it doesn’t work out like that.”
At this point, though, it’s worth asking if the Nationals have the pieces on offense to fix the problem. They continue to struggle putting men on base at the top of the lineup; their top two hitters went 1-for-7 today, and leadoff hitter Nyjer Morgan has a .308 on-base percentage.
“We have a good offense on paper. We’ve got to start from the top,” Willingham said. “When Nyjer plays well, it helps our offense. We’ve just been really inconsistent.”
They didn’t get any help from home-plate umpire Hunter Wendelstedt, who called Roger Bernadina out at home in the sixth inning despite replays that showed Bernadina clearly beat Jason Kendall’s tag off Jose Guillen’s throw. But they also missed a chance in the fifth, when Willingham ran halfway home on Adam Kennedy’s chopper to first, only to retreat back to third base. Kennedy made the first out of the inning, but Willingham never scored.
“If I’d have known he was going to bobble it, I would’ve kept going,” Willingham said. “I had to stay out of a double play. If he throws to second, I’m going to score. If not, I’m going to have to get in a rundown and keep the inning going.”
Maybe three games in an American League ballpark will help this weekend. But after that, they have 13 games against playoff contenders - the Braves, Mets, Padres and Giants, who have the sixth, fifth, first and third-best team ERAs in the National League, respectively.
More and more, this looks like an offense that will have trouble doing enough to put together the kind of roll the Nationals need to get back in the playoff picture. If that’s the case, learn to appreciate Strasburg for what he is - a remarkably talented young pitcher.
What he’s not is a cure-all. He can’t fix their offense, which looks right now to be in need of serious aid.