On Friday, the Nationals played their 17th game with Ryan Zimmerman, beating the world champion San Francisco Giants 3-0 behind a five-hit shutout from Jason Marquis and just enough timely hitting to slip past two-time Cy Young Award winner Tim Lincecum. They improved to 9-8 without Zimmerman, and fielded a lineup on Saturday that included one hitter batting over .250 at game time.
They'll be playing with that lineup for at least the next six weeks, after announcing on Saturday that Zimmerman will need surgery to repair a torn rectus muscle in his abdomen. He will have surgery on Tuesday in Philadelphia, and will return in mid-June "if all goes well," according to general manager Mike Rizzo.
In a season that had already been altered by an injury that happened to Stephen Strasburg last August, Zimmerman's absence will further test a Nationals offense that has been sufficiently anemic so far. Washington entered Saturday's game with a 12-13 record, but was in the bottom four of the National League in batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, runs, hits and doubles.
The Nationals will likely start Jerry Hairston Jr. and Alex Cora, two players that were supposed to be backups at the beginning of the season, at third base for the next 40 or so games, assuming Zimmerman's rehab goes smoothly and he returns after a West Coast road trip June 14 against the Cardinals. The third baseman had a 1.022 OPS in eight games before his injury, and his loss will further stress a lineup that hasn't gotten the job done so far.
It also means the Nationals' pitching-and-defense approach, which was the main theme of an offseason where the team focused on two-way players like Jayson Werth and Adam LaRoche, had better work. Their pitching staff won't have Strasburg until September at the earliest, but has done surprisingly well in the season's first month, posting a 3.65 ERA heading into Saturday despite ranking last in the National League in strikeouts.
The group, which is largely made up of sinkerballers, will get tested as the weather improves and hitters find their form, and the offense won't have Zimmerman to help bail it out. The Nationals' pitching staff is second in the NL in walks and first in home runs allowed - and with home runs, at least, logic says their luck won't last.
So the Nationals will need to find runs in other places. Werth has looked better at the plate this week, and LaRoche historically has gotten better as the season's gone on. Ian Desmond has been on a tear since getting back from paternity leave. But the Nationals, who had problems getting their first and second hitters on base last year, are having the same issues this year - their leadoff hitters have a .228 on-base percentage and their No. 2 hitters are at .292.
"First and second is an area we wanted to improve in terms of on-base. Right now, we're not getting on base a lot," manager Jim Riggleman said. "But I really like the second spot for (Rick) Ankiel. You kind of like to have somebody who can juice the ball there a little bit, and he certainly can."
So far, he hasn't been; Ankiel has a .571 OPS. Michael Morse, who won the left field job after hitting nine homers in spring training, is at .543. Wilson Ramos has by far been the hottest hitter on the Nationals' roster, and it's likely he'll get more time behind the plate as the season goes on. But if their offense continues to struggle, they'll need him even more.
Their offseason decisions were based on the idea that they could win by limiting runs, and whatever offense they'd get would be a bonus. They've made 22 errors, second-most in the National League, and they've got a Gold Glove third baseman about to have surgery. They've gotten by on the strength of a surprising pitching staff, but without Zimmerman, their already-thin margin for error will shrink even more.
And at this point, all the moves the Nationals made will be put to the test.
"We see one of the best hitters in baseball that's not going to be able to play for us for six weeks. We're 9-8 without him. We're scratching for runs and trying to win games," general manager Mike Rizzo said. "The guys that we've put out at third base have been terrific defensively and we've struggled to score runs. Obviously when you take your best hitter out of the lineup, you're going to have to find different ways to score runs. Nobody's going to feel sorry for us. We've got a game today, we're going to continue to play without Ryan. He's a huge part of our ballclub but we're going to have to find ways to win games without him."