Following a 1-0 loss to the Kansas City Royals yesterday, during which the Nationals wasted another solid pitching performance from Stephen Strasburg, several players in the clubhouse talked about the team's recent offensive slump as a temporary state, rather than a permanent problem.
"At the end of the year, our numbers will probably be the same as they always are," third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. "But since we haven't scored in a week or so, that's what everybody asks about. Nobody asks about it when we're scoring six, seven, eight runs a game, and that's how it evens out. It's obviously frustrating. We want to do it all season, but it doesn't work out like that."
Zimmerman might be right. But if the numbers of this offense end up where they always do at the end of the year, will that be good enough? It's a little hard to see that happening.
The Nationals have a legitimate heart of the order in Zimmerman, Adam Dunn and Josh Willingham. There's little question about that. But the top of their order rarely sets up anything for those three, and the Nationals have more productive hitters (Ivan Rodriguez and Roger Bernadina) batting after their sluggers come up.
Willingham made an interesting comment after the game yesterday, saying the Nationals have to start from the top, and usually play better when Morgan is hitting. With his .308 OBP, he's not doing much of anything to create RBI opportunities for the heart of the order. Neither is regular No. 2 hitter Cristian Guzman, who's hitting .253 with a .280 OBP in June.
The middle of the lineup doesn't escape culpability, either - Zimmerman is hitting .239 in June, though he's made up for it in part with a .368 OBP this month. Dunn continues to struggle with men in scoring position, and Willingham joins Zimmerman in the June Funk Connection, with a .243 average, .325 OBP and a measly .429 slugging percentage.
But those three guys are going be in the middle of the order, no matter what. The temporary fix, at least, might lie lower in the lineup.
Bernadina is hitting .338 in his last 20 games, and Riggleman has toyed with him in the No. 2 hole at times. Why not give that a shot and drop Guzman - or at least do it on the days he's not playing - or use him to spell Morgan? Ian Desmond, who's slumping badly in the No. 8 hole, could also benefit from a move up. In the eighth spot, where he's going to get fed breaking balls all day with the pitcher on deck, Desmond is hitting .239. Yet that's where he's played the most games. He's got a .353 average while batting second. It's only in eight games, but with his speed, Desmond could hit second and create some opportunities for Zimmerman and Dunn.
And then there's Michael Morse, whose popularity has never been higher. You'd lose something defensively by putting Morse in right field every day, but with a .390 average and three homers in 41 at-bats, he's shown enough to at least make you curious about what he could do with more playing time. Maybe he'll get that this weekend in Baltimore.
Riggleman often talks about scribbling out lineups on napkins. Well, here's mine, in case anyone's asking for it. Consider this my virtual napkin:
Bernadina - CF
Desmond - SS
Zimmerman - 3B
Dunn - 1B
Willingham - LF
Morse - RF
Rodriguez - C
Guzman/Kennedy - 2B
You'd put Bernadina and his .344 OBP at the top; Riggleman has talked about wanting to leave Bernadina in the middle of the order, but Morse could help clear up some of the problems there. Desmond gets a chance to hit in a spot where he gets some pitches to handle - and stoke all those Derek Jeter comparisons.
Morse, to me, is the key with this lineup; if he can be a No. 6 hitter (with say, .275/.350/.440 numbers), that'd solve a huge problem in the order. Guzman might not like hitting lower in the lineup, but he's not getting it done where he is right now. And you'd have to get Morgan enough at-bats to keep him involved, but why couldn't that be as a fourth outfielder for now, at least until he gets going again? Riggleman has managed his three-infielder rotation well enough; the same could work with four outfielders.
This leaves the Nationals without a good right-handed bat on the bench, but that can be Guzman when he's not in the lineup. And that's an ancillary problem right now. When you've scored 69 runs in 21 games, and lost 14 of them, it's worth a little tinkering.
Wow, this is a really big napkin. I must be at some roadside barbecue place.