There are going to be times this year, with Ryan Zimmerman in the lineup and especially without him, where the Nationals' offense just goes limp for a day. This is a team relying on a handful of first-time starters, hoping to get by without a game-changing power threat and, at the moment, capable of freezing at any time even if it is coming off a stretch of productive games.
The Nationals have lost nine of 18 games this year, and in three of those, they've been shut out. The first two came against a pair of pitchers - Derek Lowe and Cliff Lee - who have a combined four All-Star appearances. But the third shutout L came against another pitcher who has little in common with Lowe and Lee other than the start of his last name. Kyle Lohse entered Thursday's game with a 90-99 career record and a 4.76 ERA, including a 5.72 career ERA against the Nationals. But he shut the Nationals down as thoroughly as Lowe and Lee.
In a 5-0 loss to the Cardinals on Thursday, the Nationals managed just two hits off Lohse, drawing only two walks and making him throw only 111 pitches in nine innings. They didn't have an extra-base hit, and the three runs Collin Balester gave up in the eighth inning only dressed up the final score.
As a team, the Nationals are hitting .222 this year, even with Zimmerman having contributed a .357 average and 1.022 OPS through eight games before going on the disabled list. They've banked on production from Michael Morse (who's hitting .196) and Ian Desmond (.211), and it's not coming right now. Rick Ankiel is hitting .221 and even Jayson Werth is in a funk; he's batting .209.
Some of the Nationals' struggling hitters have the track record to suggest they'll improve. Others will have to mature into consistent hitters; Morse, in particular, is falling well short early this year of what's expected of him. But even with Zimmerman, there's plenty of reason to expect games like today's will happen to the Nationals once in a while.
By the time Wilson Ramos is starting most games at catcher, the Nationals will have four everyday players (Danny Espinosa, Morse, Desmond and Ramos) who have yet to play a full season in the majors. For all the talk about a more seasoned club, the Nationals are still counting on young hitters maturing. That might not happen in time to sustain the offense this year.
When the Nationals put two runners on base for the only time in the game - with Werth on second and LaRoche on first - Desmond swung at a first-pitch slider, low and away and in a spot where he wasn't likely to drive it. He hit it to second for a forceout, and the Nationals' only real threat was over.
That's a sign of inexperience from the second-year shortstop, and with or without Zimmerman, the Nationals are going to have to endure some of those this year. That means they're going to have games like Thursday's, where even ordinary pitchers like Lohse look masterful.