The Nationals' season is slipping away quickly, the distance between them and the first-place Atlanta Braves now 11 games. It was six games a month ago today, and eight days before that, it was just one game. That 14-6 win over the Rockies on May 13, which put the Nationals at 20-15, is beginning to look like it will be the high-water mark of the season. In the 35 games since, the Nationals are 11-24, and making the task of climbing back to the periphery of the playoff race increasingly difficult.
Sunday's loss to the Chicago White Sox showed more of the same problems; bad situational hitting and a performance from a starting pitcher that wasn't up to par. The big story on Sunday was John Lannan, who didn't make it through the fifth inning for the third start in a row. Manager Jim Riggleman said Lannan will remain in the rotation for Saturday's game against the Orioles, but it remains to be seen how long the Nationals will be patient with him.
Here are the awards for Sunday:
Josh Willingham: He went 2-for-4 with a run, showing some production after an extended slump. Willingham's average has fallen to .269, and the Nationals need to get him going for their offense to be successful.
Roger Bernadina: With another multi-hit game (2-for-4, and a fourth-inning RBI), Bernadina continues to assert himself in the Nationals' lineup. It will take a little more time to figure out if he's the answer in right field, but he's making a strong case that he is.
Miguel Batista: Credit the right-hander for throwing three scoreless innings after Lannan left the game. There's a lot of griping about Batista, but he's actually pitched shutout ball in 11 of his last 12 appearances.
John Lannan: The left-hander says his arm feels great, but he can't get a feel for any of his pitches. That's the dreaded diagnosis for any sinkerballer, and like Jason Marquis in April, Lannan vowed to put in extra work searching for the answer this week. Marquis had bone chips in his elbow, and Lannan missed a start earlier this year with elbow discomfort. But if he's not hurt, the lack of a better explanation for his struggles could cost him a spot in the rotation sooner than later. Saturday's start against the Orioles is a big one for Lannan.
Ian Desmond: The rookie shortstop is in a bit of a funk right now, with a .136 on-base percentage in his last six games. Like with Bernadina, the Nationals seem committed to letting Desmond play and ride the slumps out. He's got to emerge from one now.
Ryan Zimmerman: WIth an 0-for-4 day on Sunday, including two strikeouts and a double play, Zimmerman has just four hits in his last 34 at-bats. Of all the players on the Nationals' roster to be concerned about, Zimmerman might be the lowest on the list. That said, he's not coming through at a time when the offense looks limp.
In Case You Missed It:
--The Nationals made a couple of bold baserunning decisions in their three-run fourth inning, using them to ignite a rally. First, when Adam Dunn hit a bouncing ball toward White Sox first baseman Paul Konerko, Cristian Guzman broke from third, sliding away from Ramon Castro's tag at the plate and touching home plate with his left hand. That tied the game at one, and put Dunn on base with a fielder's choice. Then, with Josh Willingham at the plate and one out, manager Jim Riggleman called for a hit-and-run. Dunn took off on a 1-0 count - not exactly a spot where it was a sure thing Willingham would get a pitch to hit - and Willingham ripped a single to left off Freddy Garcia. Dunn went to third, and scored on Roger Bernadina's single to center, which he probably wouldn't have done if he'd been at second. Gutsy decisions, but when the Nationals aren't hitting, sometimes moves like those are necessary. They worked on Sunday.
--This isn't really a game detail, per se, but late in the game, the Nationals put up a video with memorable father-son moments from a handful of movies. Let's just say it got a little dusty in the press box when they closed with the final scene from "Field of Dreams," where Kevin Costner asks his dad if he wants to have a catch (every time I watch that movie, it seems to be in some dusty place). Reminded me of all the times playing catch with my dad in our backyard, when I was working on my two-seam fastball (yeah, I threw a two-seamer in third grade), and he'd have to go chasing it down the huge hill in our backyard when I put a little too much movement on it (again, I was in third grade; I wasn't always painting the corners). Thanks, Dad, for everything you do, and a happy Father's Day to all the dads out there. I couldn't hear it too well, but the Nationals showed a video with Matt Capps talking about what his father (who died last October) meant to him. Make sure you tell yours, too.
1. What should the Nationals do about John Lannan - send him to the bullpen to work things out, or give him a couple starts in the minors? Or should they stick with him? Lannan has been their best starter the last two years, but manager Jim Riggleman said they can't keep taking Lannan out of the game in the fifth inning. He's got - and earned - some leeway, but how much remains to be seen. What would you do at this point?
2. Several Nationals players said after Sunday's game that the team just hasn't hit its hot streak yet, and can get things going again with a hot week or two. Do you see that coming? I'm not sure this offense is capable of sustaining things for a long enough stretch to win six or seven in a row, but maybe you see it differently. Let me know.
Leave your answers to the Talking Points in the comments, as usual, and if you've got any good dad stories, throw those in, too. I know we're a day late, but it doesn't have to be Father's Day to talk about it.
I've got to run to Best Buy and see if I can get this computer back to decent performance, or if I should end my Hamlet-like soliloquies of indecisiveness and spring for a Macbook. But I'll have more later, including the first in the series of our Nats blogger profiles, with Patrick Reddington of Federal Baseball.