Phillies 4, Nationals 0: Second Look

Before the start of the 2011 season, most people in the business of predicting things (including this reporter) said the Nationals’ pitching staff would be their biggest issue. Their offense certainly looked like it had some issues, too, but whether the Nationals pitched well seemed like the primary factor in how well they’d do.

Twelve games into the season, they’ve allowed 53 runs. They have a team ERA of 3.66, and they’ve won five games.

Now, part of the reason they’re not scoring runs is because of the injuries they’ve sustained; Ryan Zimmerman is out of the lineup, and Adam LaRoche - normally a slow starter anyway - has been playing through two injuries. But if the Nationals’ lineup was ever going to work, they needed players like Ian Desmond and Michael Morse to take dramatic steps forward in their development.

So far, those two players are hitting a combined .163.

“All offseason, they were talking about, ‘Oh, our pitching staff is the question. Our offense is great,’ ” Desmond said. “Now it’s time for us to turn it on. The pitching staff is doing their job. We’ve got to go out and do the rest.”

Here are the awards from the Nationals’ 4-0 loss to the Phillies:

Golden Geese
Jordan Zimmermann: For five innings, Zimmermann was perfect, retiring the first 15 batters he faced and matching Cliff Lee pitch-for-pitch. He hung a curveball on his second pitch of the sixth inning to Carlos Ruiz, but the other three runs he allowed were unearned, products of a defense that didn’t back him up. Zimmermann threw strikes (64 in 85 pitches), commanded his fastball and made good use of his slider. He looked like a starter capable of being a worthy complement to Stephen Strasburg at the top of the Nationals’ rotation for years to come. “I was attacking more tonight, and just coming after them with the fastball,” Zimmermann said. “I put it on each side of the plate and got in on some guys. Everything was working, and when it’s working that well, it’s pretty easy to keep the pitch count low when you know where it’s going to go every time.”

Wilson Ramos: In his first game batting fifth in the Nationals’ lineup, Ramos provided much of what little offense the team had. He went 1-for-2 with a walk, and is now batting .455 with a .538 OPS. He continues to show he’s ready to take on more of the everyday responsibilities behind the plate.

Brian Broderick: As rough as the right-hander’s start in the majors has been, give him credit for pitching a scoreless ninth inning and at least keeping the deficit at four runs. It was unlikely the Nationals were going to come back on Lee, but Broderick at least kept the game where it was.

Goose Eggs
Desmond: Give the shortstop credit: He was standing at his locker after Thursday’s loss, striking team-leader tones and putting the blame squarely on himself for the Nationals’ lack of offense. Desmond is 0-for-25 at home, and knows his struggles as the leadoff hitter are short-circuiting the Nationals’ ability to score runs. “It doesn’t help that the leadoff guy hasn’t been on base at home yet,” Desmond said. ‘That’s a fact. I’ve got to get on base if the team wants to score runs.” He said he is back to his old hitting approach after making a couple tweaks in his swing. But all that tinkering - this early in the season - is a symptom of a full-fledged slump.

Nationals’ defense: While it’s certainly true Washington’s offense isn’t getting the job done right now, its defense is making plenty of the same mistakes as last season after a concerted effort to improve it across the diamond. The Nationals have committed 11 errors, tied for the most in the National League, and made two more last night when Danny Espinosa muffed an easy grounder and Jerry Hairston Jr. threw wildly to first after a nice backhanded stop at third. “I wish I would have came and got (the ball), but I saw a little topspin, so I had to play it to me,” Hairston said. “I caught it, but my momentum took me all the way down the left field line. I just tried to get rid of it - maybe one-hop it to Rochie (Adam LaRoche). Roche is so good, that maybe he can pick it, but it was just too far to his right.”

In Case You Missed It:
* Jesus Flores came to the plate in the ninth inning for his first at-bat in nearly two years, and lined a pinch single to right off Lee. “It feels great to get the hit, but it wasn’t enough to win the ballgame. I can’t be a selfish guy,” Flores said. “Jordan pitched a great game tonight. Unfortunately, we didn’t hit well. We’ll be ready for tomorrow to start a new series (against the Brewers).”

* Zimmermann threw first-pitch fastballs to all but five hitters he faced on Thursday; Ryan Howard got breaking balls twice, and Placido Polanco, Jimmy Rollins, Ben Francisco and Carlos Ruiz all got breaking balls once. His first time through the lineup, Zimmermann threw every hitter a first-pitch fastball, and his ability to establish it effectively was the key to his night. After he threw the first-pitch slider to Ruiz for a strike, though, he hung a curveball on the inner half of the plate that Ruiz hit out of the park. “If you make your pitch, it doesn’t matter what you throw,” Zimmermann said. “If it was down, and he would have grounded out, it would have been a different story.”

Talking Points:
1. Manager Jim Riggleman said after Thursday’s game he won’t make any major changes to his lineup for tonight’s game against the Brewers, meaning Desmond will be back in the leadoff spot. But how long would you give him before trying Espinosa there? Espinosa has a .405 on-base percentage early this year, and not having Ryan Zimmerman in the lineup almost gives Riggleman an excuse to tinker with things. If it’s me, I’d try Espinosa at the top and move Desmond to the No. 2 hole, where he hit well last year and where he’d get some protection from Jayson Werth. What would you do with the lineup at this point? Does Desmond need more time to get acclimated to the role?

2. Give me your thoughts on Zimmermann’s night. Is he starting to blossom into the pitcher the Nationals believe he can be? He’s throwing more strikes and keeping his pitch count low, which so far has worked better for him than when he’s racking up strikeouts. What do you think of him so far?

Leave your answers in the comments section. The Brewers - and Nyjer Morgan - head to town for three games tonight, and Morgan had a few more barbs for the Nationals yesterday. I’ll have more on that in a little while.