All of a sudden, Nationals starters aren’t getting it done

All season, the Nationals have gotten by with an underperforming offense because of a bullpen that’s been as solid as expected and a starting pitching staff that, after being pegged as one of the weak spots of the team, has fared surprisingly well.

The Nationals’ starters have consistently avoided walks, generated ground balls and kept pitch counts low enough to work at least into the fifth or sixth inning, even if few of their pitchers were capable of dominating a game. That’s been a big part of the reason the team is at .500 despite having one of the worst offenses in the game.

In the last week, though, that hasn’t been the case.

Whether it’s regression to the mean or just a temporary funk. the Nationals’ starters have been off their game all week. They haven’t a quality start since John Lannan’s seven-inning, three-run performance last Saturday (though Lannan might have been on the way to another one if he hadn’t gotten hit in the face by a line drive last night), and in the last seven days, their starters have a 6.48 ERA. Only the Rockies and Orioles have been worse in the last week.

Mostly, hitters have been better at making solid contact off Nationals starters in the last week; they’re hitting line drives 23.8 percent of the time, which is the second-highest rate in the game and 4.6 percent higher than their season rate. And when a Nationals pitcher throws a pitch in the strike zone, hitters have only missed it eight percent of the time in the last week. This hasn’t been a pitching staff built on an ability to miss bats, and when the Nationals’ pitchers start leaving the ball up in the strike zone, they’re going to have an especially hard time escaping trouble.

It could just be a short-term problem, but the Cubs singled their way back into Wednesday’s game against Livan Hernandez, costing the Nationals a sweep of that series. The Nationals will need to get their pitchers back on track if they want to finish the first half above .500 and make a push in the second half.