With win over Astros, Nationals continue the process of regenerating hope

When the Nationals weren’t hitting in April, their insistence that their offense would get hot at some point made sense. It was early in the year, and they seemingly had enough good hitters to at least be competent, if not dominant.

When they still weren’t hitting in May and June, their repeated assertions that they were better than this started to ring hollow; outfielder Laynce Nix said on June 16 that the Nationals were trying to convince themselves, as much as anyone else, that they were capable of more. And for a while, it worked; Nix said that in the middle of the Nationals’ season-long eight-game win streak, and they pulled into the All-Star break at .500, despite having one of the worst offenses in the league.

You won’t hear nearly as much bravado from the Nationals these days. They’re 10 games under .500, and even though they believe they still have a better offense than what they’ve shown this year, they’ve got a mountain of data stacked against them. They have scored the fourth-fewest runs in the National League, have the third-worst batting average and have struck out the second-most times.

Davey Johnson talks with the media after the Nationals get the walk-off win over the Astros

Manager Davey Johnson, who’s built his career on scoring early and defending late, took over a team he thought would be more productive, and takes the weak numbers almost as a personal slight. Even after the Nationals beat the Astros 4-3 on Friday night, winning on Jayson Werth’s infield single and Jimmy Paredes’ throwing error in the 11th inning, Johnson was lamenting the offense.

“I have trouble sleeping at night thinking about it. It just makes it tougher on the pitching staff, tougher on the defense,” Johnson said. “I usually don’t talk a lot of hitting during the season. I’m starting to open up and talk about what I’m seeing with the hitters. I usually do that in the spring. That’s a spring job - talking about what I’m seeing, and what I’d like to see us accomplish and do, from each individual. ... The offense is going to struggle. But there’s no give-up in it. That’s the good thing.”

And on Friday night, the Nationals won for just the fourth time in 16 games, almost in spite of an offense that continued to scuffle.

Facing the worst team in baseball, the Nationals managed just six hits, scoring two unearned runs and winning on an odd play when Johnson made a diving stop and tried to fire to second base in hopes of getting Michael Morse. But as the ball skipped into right field, Ryan Zimmerman came home with the winning run.

“I think I got a hit on it, or whatever,” Werth said. “But I ended up winning the game with it. Push ‘em back, pull ‘em in, whatever it takes.”

That’s probably all the Nationals have at this point. Werth is still hitting .230, with a .728 OPS that’s nearly 200 points lower than what he put up last year. Danny Espinosa has skidded to .228, homering just twice in the second half after putting himself at the front of the Rookie of the Year race. Laynce Nix’s season has been ground to a halt with injuries and a regression to the mean, and the team is still trying to see if Ian Desmond can get comfortable at the top of the lineup.

The Nationals have lost 26 games by a run, and it’s no stretch to say the reason they’re not closer to .500 is because their offense has been so poor.

But they’re not giving up, and they’re close enough to the end of the season that a new form of optimism is spreading through their clubhouse; maybe it’s just that their offense has been in a season-long funk, destined to be better next year once Werth has played a season under the pressure of his $126 million deal, Espinosa has a full year in the majors and Ryan Zimmerman is fully healthy. Maybe they’ll fix the top of their lineup, and get Adam LaRoche back healthy at first base.

Maybe this year, when the Nationals will show modest improvement, could have been even better if they could have hit.

In the last three weeks of the season, all they can do is hustle and hope.

“I mentioned in Milwaukee that I think things need to change,” said Werth, recalling the terse comments he made when the team had lost seven of eight in May. “I kind of got in trouble for saying that. But here we are, many months later, and we still need to drive the runs in and get the hits to score. Essentially, things still need to change, but you can’t say that without saying what you mean, I guess. I guess I mean that we still need to get the big hit and win the ballgames, however you can win them. Tonight, we got some guys on there late, and I just pushed one across. It’s not a whole lot different than May. It’s still a microcosm of the season, really. I feel like we’re a really good ballclub. We’re just not getting the key hits, and it’s tough to win like that. But I think going forward, this team’s going to be really good.”