The Nationals are back at 20-20 after last night's 3-2 loss to the Cardinals, and it's getting a little difficult to tell what they're going to be, as I wrote in the game story. They're on a five-game losing streak, and in those five losses, they've scored two, three, one, two and two runs. They've lost three of those games by one run, after starting the year 8-3 in one-run games. That's probably a regression to the mean, at least in terms of close games, but the Nationals' offense was also missing Adam Dunn for a good chunk of that time. The next two months, when the Nationals play a schedule loaded with beatable opponents, will reveal a lot about where this team is headed.
Now, the awards:
John Lannan: He made a mistake on the flat 81-mph changeup he threw Felipe Lopez in the third inning, but other than that, Lannan was as strong as he's been in almost a month. He allowed two runs in six innings, and walked just one; the left-hander had walked an uncharacteristically high 22 in his first seven starts. He still didn't have the fastball command the Nationals expect from him, throwing just 57 of 94 pitches for strikes, but it was a step in the right direction for Lannan.
Ian Desmond: Following a 4-for-4 performance on Monday night, Desmond went 2-for-4 on Tuesday, driving in the game-tying run in the eighth inning. He's hitting .279, and his UZR of 3.2 is second among National League shortstops. It's only a quarter of the way through the season, but it looks like the Nationals have found an answer at shortstop. "That's good scouting and player development, to bring a shortstop up to be a starting guy for you at a young age and be able to solidify the infield," manager Jim Riggleman said in his televised postgame interview. "He's a leader on the field, and just a pleasure to have out there."
Wil Nieves: The catcher emerged from a 1-for-12 slump to hit his third career major-league homer, also contributing a sacrifice. Nieves isn't going to be known for his bat, but he'll surprise you with his offensive output every once in a while. That typically happens more when he's getting consistent playing time, but his homer last night pulled the Nationals within one.
Tyler Clippard: The setup man's struggles could be just another case of regression to the mean, after a five-week start that bordered on ethereal. But it's clear the Nationals don't quite have the fix figured out yet. Riggleman has talked about the need to dial Clippard back after an excruciating workload; he said on TV last night that he might start pitching Clippard more. "I almost feel like I haven't gotten him enough work lately, because when he was throwing more, it was almost automatic," Riggleman said.
Nyjer Morgan: After an 0-for-5 night on Tuesday, Morgan's average has dropped to .257, and he's in a 5-for-28 slump. Riggleman gave him a night off on Monday, hoping to break him out of his doldrums, but that didn't seem to help. And with Adam Dunn laid up for the last three days, Morgan's sputtering has really shown up in the Nationals' offensive output - or lack thereof.
In Case You Missed It:
--Clippard threw first-pitch fastballs to both of the hitters he faced before Ryan Ludwick's homer, threw nothing but off-speed pitches to Ludwick and didn't throw another first-pitch fastball the rest of the inning. Part of that might have been because he was facing Matt Holliday and Albert Pujols and didn't want to start them off with a hittable pitch. But they both drew walks, and if Clippard was spooked off his fastball, that's a problem. It's something worth watching in his next couple outings.
--Sean Burnett chipped in another solid appearance, pitching a perfect seventh inning that allowed the Nationals to tie the game in the top of the eighth. For all the talk about Drew Storen, Burnett still presents a viable option to take some stress off Clippard when he's pitching well, which he is right now.
--Clippard did keep the damage to one in the eighth inning when he picked off Brendan Ryan at first base before the homer. He gave up the homer on the pitch after the pickoff, so the Nationals nearly were down 4-2 instead of 3-2.
1. What to do with Clippard? Give him a day or two off, or use him more, like Riggleman suggested? He's worked 27 1/3 innings in 20 games, and is still on pace to pitch more than 100 innings this year. What the Nationals need is a couple blowout games where they can rest Clippard completely, but their offense isn't in shape to give them that right now. So how would you treat him in the meantime?
2. How worried are you about the offense? Do you feel like it's a bat short, or is Adam Dunn's absence merely being accentuated right now because the rest of the lineup is struggling?
3. We're at the unofficial quarter pole of the season (Actually, we'll be at the official quarter pole after 4 1/2 innings tonight, but this seems like a better time to get all retrospective, no?). What grade would you give this team? The Nationals are 20-20 after playing a brutal schedule, and no one expected them to be this good. But they've lost five straight, and their lack of depth has shown in the rotation, bullpen and lineup at different times. Give me your 40-game grade. And while we're at it, tell me your team MVP.
Leave your answers to the Talking Points in the comments, like usual, and feel free to throw in anything else on your mind. I might compile some of the MVP picks and grades into a separate post later today, and I'll be back at Nationals Park tonight. Feels like forever since I've been there. Talk to you later!