How Ryan Zimmerman’s injury affects the Nationals’ lineup

In their first nine games, the Nationals scored just 36 runs, 12th-most in the National League and an average of just four a game. They are last in the NL with a .217 average, a .328 slugging percentage and 98 total bases. And that’s with Ryan Zimmerman getting on base at a .486 clip - seventh-best in the NL - and posting a 1.022 OPS.

If the Nationals offense has had that much trouble with Zimmerman tearing through the season’s first week, their next several weeks could be downright woeful.

All season, the Nationals’ lineup has been constructed to minimize the holes in their batting order. Jayson Werth has been batting second because the team doesn’t have two players it trusts at the top of the lineup. Adam LaRoche and Michael Morse, who are being counted on to drive in runs from the fourth and fifth spots, are a combined 3-for-18 with runners in scoring position. And other than Zimmerman, Danny Espinosa has been the only starter to play every game and post an OPS better than .800.

But Zimmerman is headed to the 15-day disabled list with an abdominal strain, and the team isn’t likely to bring him back until the injury settles down. The Nationals will have to face the Phillies, Brewers, Cardinals and Pirates without Zimmerman, and if his injury stretches into early May, they could be looking at a four-game series with the defending champion Giants without him, too.

On Sunday, they batted Werth third, moving Rick Ankiel from the sixth to the second spot in Zimmerman’s absence. That moved Espinosa up to the sixth spot, and Alex Cora batted eighth, playing third base.

That lineup gives the Nationals a good righty-lefty balance against right-handed pitchers (with Espinosa batting from the left side). But the Nationals will face left-hander Cliff Lee this week, and could struggle especially against left-handed pitchers if they’re counting on power from Ankiel and LaRoche on an everyday basis. Both struggle against lefties, and LaRoche is playing with two nagging injuries (a torn labrum and a strained left groin).

To survive without Zimmerman, the Nationals will need Werth to come out of a 3-for-25 slump on last week’s road trip and get on his first legitimate tear with the team. And they’ll need a big improvement from Morse, who looked like a difference-maker with 15 homers in 293 at-bats last year and nine this spring. He had an opposite-field single on Sunday, a sign he might be sorting things out at the plate after admittedly being overly excited about his starting spot in left field. But the Nationals are sorely lacking in impact bats without Zimmerman, and they badly need Morse to fill some of the void left by their third baseman.

In their first nine games, the Nationals went 4-5, surviving because of their stellar end-of-game bullpen trio (Sean Burnett, Drew Storen and Tyler Clippard) and a starting staff that’s overachieved. But the stress on those pitchers is about to get cranked up unless the Nationals can manage enough offense without Zimmerman.

The good news for the Nationals is, they’ve won four games with a .217 team average. HItting goes in streaks, and an average that low probably means some of their hitters are due to get hot. If that doesn’t happen, though, and there’s no Zimmerman to pick them up, things could get bleak.