MILWAUKEE - We saw it again Monday night: A pitcher who was able to repetitively pound the strike zone was able to shut the Nationals down, help his team cruise to a victory and give his season a boost. The Brewers' Yovani Gallardo, who came into Monday's game with a 4.70 ERA, pumped 71 strikes in 102 pitches - his best strike percentage of the season - and held the Nationals to a a run in seven innings.
That came after the Orioles' Jeremy Guthrie, another talented pitcher crafting an underwhelming 2011 season, put 70 of his 108 pitches in the strike zone Saturday, allowing two runs (both unearned) in seven innings.
Those two pitchers combined for 13 strikeouts. Gallardo walked one batter; Guthrie walked none.
"You don't want to hit in a hole all the time," second baseman Danny Espinosa said. "When a guy's on, though, and he's getting first-pitch strikes, and he's having a good game, you've got to battle."
The Nationals might be battling, but they're fighting without three of their veteran hitters at the moment; Ryan Zimmerman had a .388 on-base percentage last year, Adam LaRoche's .337 career OBP is 70 points higher than his career average and even Rick Ankiel had drawn 12 walks in 28 games to put his OBP 81 points above his average this year. Without those hitters in the lineup, the Nationals are turning to high-strikeout, low-walk hitters like Roger Bernadina, Ian Desmond and Michael Morse, and they're struggling with it.
They have the fourth-lowest walk-to-strikeout ratio in baseball, striking out almost three times as frequently as they walk. And an offense that walked 90 times in 26 games in March and April has just 58 walks in 21 games this month. Even as players like Jayson Werth start to heat up, the Nationals are having trouble getting enough baserunners to sustain rallies.
So what's the fix? The Nationals probably aren't going to be able to grind out as many long at-bats and knock pitchers out of the game as frequently until Zimmerman gets back. And plainly speaking, they're also suffering because they don't have as many good hitters in their lineup; as solidly as Jerry Hairston Jr. and Alex Cora have played in the field, it's tough to replace Zimmerman. But Desmond, for example, has just seven walks against 46 strikeouts in 42 games. That's a tough balance to have from your No. 2 hitter.
As a team, the Nationals have the third-highest strikeout percentage in the game. They could live with that if they were also drawing walks and putting men on base, but they're not. And as that happens, opposing pitchers are finding they can cruise through the Nationals' lineup if they only make a point to stay around the strike zone.