There have been brief periods this year when the Nationals' offense does enough to make you think it's about to get hot, that a season-long malaise is about to give way to the kind of performances the Nationals keep insisting are around the corner.
And then there are weekends like these.
A 2-0 loss to Marlins ace Josh Johnson wouldn't have been so tough for the Nationals to accept if not for their 11 hits and 10 men left on base. And on Sunday, they faced a pitcher who'd made one major-league start, continued to put men on base ... and got shut out again, losing 1-0 to right-hander Alex Sanabia.
Maybe these weekends are more normal than they should be.
Manager Jim Riggleman likes to say that every team in the big leagues has trouble knocking in runners at times, but this is an offense built around a trio of big-time run producers in Ryan Zimmerman, Adam Dunn and Josh Willingham. For much of this season, the Nationals have been able to point to struggles at the top of the lineup, but their top two hitters were on base three times in eight plate appearances on Sunday, after going 5-for-9 on Saturday.
If that's not an issue for the time being, it doesn't compute why the Nationals should have so much trouble scoring with a 3-4-5 combination that's getting plenty of chances to drive in runs. Adam Dunn, cooling off after a long tear, struck out twice on Sunday and left five men on base. Josh Willingham also left that many men on base, his three-run double on Friday the only exception to a long weekend for the left fielder.
And for the season, the Nationals are 14th in the NL in runs, 10th in on-base percentage and 10th in slugging percentage, having added just two extra-base hits to their total all weekend.
In Baseball Prospectus' Others Batted In percentage - a stat that measures how often a batter drives in a runner, other than himself, when given the chance - the Nationals have one player in the NL's top 50. That player is catcher Ivan Rodriguez, who ranks 50th with a 15.3 OBI percentage.
Dunn is 54th (15.0%), Ryan Zimmerman is 69th (14.4%) and Willingham is 87th (13.2%). Take homers out of the picture, and this offense looks much less elite.
Maybe this is part of the reason general manager Mike Rizzo is at least open to trade offers for two of his three sluggers (Dunn and Willingham) - because the Nationals aren't winning many games with them in the lineup. If they've got an offense that's supposed to be this good, and it's led to numbers in the bottom third of the NL all season, why not at least consider the possibility of selling off a couple parts and trying to win another way - perhaps by improving the NL's worst defensive team?
Sunday's 1-0 loss to the Marlins marked the first time the Nationals were shut out in back-to-back games since Aug. 8-9, 2008, when CC Sabathia and Ben Sheets tossed twin complete games. I was at Miller Park for those games, and they were a pair of pitching clinics by two aces leading a streaking team to the playoffs. This weekend wasn't the same. This offense is much more potent than that one, at least statistically, and instead of Sheets tossing a complete game, they got 5 1/3 innings of Sanabia, a nice-enough pitcher whose stuff isn't going to make hitters cringe.
That should be enough to change the results. It wasn't, and though the core of an elite offense is still there, it's easy to see why there's talk of subtraction when the sum of the parts is this meager.