When the Nationals let Adam Dunn leave in free agency over the winter and traded Josh Willingham to the Athletics for reliever Henry Rodriguez and Corey Brown, they explained the moves by saying they were putting a new emphasis on run prevention, which required players with different skill sets than Dunn and Willingham had.
And after they made the moves, it didn’t seem like they had a choice but to go in a different direction. They replaced Dunn and Willingham with Jayson Werth and Adam LaRoche, two players who were projected to produce about 20 runs less over a full season than Dunn and Willingham would. If the Nationals were going to win more games in 2011 than 2010, they would either have to do it with fewer runs or hope more power came from other places.
This week against the Phillies, it’s looked like they might get the latter.
The Nationals didn’t do much offensively against Philadelphia starter Roy Oswalt on Wednesday, but the deciding blow in the 2-1 win came from Laynce Nix, the minor league free agent who’d hit four homers last season and had only reached double digits twice in the major leagues. He hit his ninth homer of the year, and third in four games, in the third inning, ripping a changeup to right center.
“In this game, opportunities don’t come too easily,” Werth said. “When you get them, you’ve got to make the most of them. He’s definitely making the most of an opportunity here. I love the guy. I love him in the lineup, I love him in the outfield. He’s playing great for us. I can’t say enough good things about him.”
Said Nix: “I’m just staying loose through my swing, getting ready on time. I feel like I have good bat speed. It’s just a matter of getting ready on time.”
And they got two homers on Tuesday from Danny Espinosa, the rookie second baseman who now has 10 this season, despite only hitting .217 for the year. He’s hit three in his last three games, and leads the Nationals in homers and RBI.
For all of Washington’s problems on offense this season, hitting home runs hasn’t been one of them. The Nationals were sixth in the National League before Wednesday’s game with 49 homers this season, and they’ve done that with Ryan Zimmerman only hitting one in the eight games he’s played.
Instead, they’ve managed to get by with power from unlikely sources - a rookie middle infielder who was expected to have modest power in his first full season, and a left fielder who was one of the last players added to the roster.
The Nationals haven’t been hitting homers in bunches the last two seasons - they hit 156 in 2009 and 149 last season - but there was a feeling that they’d have a tough time replacing the output from Willingham and Dunn this season.
The difference this season, though, is the Nationals’ home runs are coming from a variety of sources, instead of just three players. Zimmerman, Dunn and Willingham hit 61 percent of their homers in 2009, and 53 percent of them last year, with Zimmerman and Willingham missing a combined 68 games. This season, they’ve had four players hitting most of the home runs; Espinosa, Nix, Werth and Michael Morse have combined for 36 of the team’s 50. And all four players have weighted on base averages over .340; last year, the Nationals had three players with wOBAs over .375, but no one else over .310.
Once they get Zimmerman back, the Nationals could have five hitters capable of adding power to the lineup. Without him - and without Willingham and Dunn - they’re on pace to hit only two fewer homers than they did last year.
Their offense will get a stern test in an 11-game West Coast road trip the next week and a half, including three games against the defending world champion Giants, followed by four in a ballpark (San Diego’s Petco Park) known for swallowing up would-be homers.
But so far, they’re getting enough power from new places to have them optimistic about what they can do if the rest of their offense catches on.
“It’s hitting season coming,” Riggleman said. “It’s that time of year where you’re going to see some balls flying and so forth. I think we’re going to be a big part of that.”